Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lovers of peace



Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war. – Psalm 120:6,7

Hebron is just an hour from Jerusalem by the settler roads. It is a holy space for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch of the faith, are said to be buried here.

It is difficult to comprehend what is happening in the West Bank in Palestine. Since the 1967 war, the West Bank is Occupied by Israel. On the road to Hebron we see a number of Israeli settlements. Gates mark the entrances to Palestinian villages. The gates can be locked at a moment’s notice by the Israeli military.

In Hebron, illegal Israeli settlements are here, too. Our guide, Abdullah, leads us through a part of the city near the burial place of Abraham and Sarah that almost looks abandoned. Palestinian shops on the ground level have long since been shut down because Israeli settlers have moved into the top floors of these buildings. Only Israelis can drive on the streets. Abdullah leaves us to walk alone down the street, since Palestinians are required to make a detour through the cemetery on the hill, high above this section of the city.

In another part of the city where the market is bustling, a netting is drawn above the Palestinian shops because the Israeli settlers who live above the market throw their garbage down into the streets.

In Jerusalem earlier in the week, I had met Ruth Hiller, an Israeli Jew who is outreach coordinator for New Profile, a Jewish organization in Israel that is helping young people and others choose alternatives to serving in the Israeli military. Ruth sees an awakening among Jews in Israel and in the United States.

More people are questioning the status quo, she says, and they believe Israel should be accountable for their treatment of Palestinians.

Dr. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian who is director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, tells me that if the leaders of the church are willing to go down to the street and raise their voices, change can come. He says we must move from advocacy to activism.

How can Christians and Jews in Israel and Palestine and in the United States begin to work together to speak for peace, not war, in this Holy Land?

“We are God’s hands and feet,” Dr. Ateek tells us. “Thank God for all of the people here, believers or not, who are working for justice.” And I thank God, too, for Christians and Jews in the United States who are beginning to raise their voices against the injustice in Palestine.

Ruth Hiller and Naim Ateek, and many more like them, are lovers of peace, not war. I am joining their efforts.

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Waiting for God

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck . . . I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. – Psalm 69:1-3

Ayman is a university professor in Palestine and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I am talking to him while we are sitting under an awning with his extended family, overlooking the bypass road in the West Bank village of Al Walajah. Land for the road was taken from his family and other Palestinian families and only Israelis can use the road, not Palestinians.

Just up the hill from the family home is the 26-foot-high cement separation wall. From the winding path the wall follows, it is clear the wall is meant for more than security. The wall separates Palestinians from their land and it protects natural resources like water for use by the Israelis.

Sandwiched between the wall and the bypass road for Israeli settlers, Ayman’s family is barely able to survive on their land. But still, they welcome us into their home and offer us tea. “Here,” Ayman says about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, “it’s your very existence that is threatened.”

Ayman tells us me he has to survive humiliation from Israeli soldiers each day as he waits to pass through the checkpoint from the West Bank into Israel on his way to teach in Jerusalem. He tells me he could have stayed in the United States after his studies, but this, he says, is his land and his family. He views his daily humiliation as part of his resistance. “You have to be crazy enough to resist,” he tells us.

From Dr. Jad Isaac, director of Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ), we had heard earlier that day that there are now hundreds of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The 700,000 Israelis who live here is double the number of settlers just 10 years ago. The bypass roads we see, says Dr. Jad, have been funded by the United States government. The primary purpose of these roads is to connect Israeli settlements and to isolate Palestinian communities.

Dr. Jad tells us that Israelis have claimed 40% of the West Bank land with the separation wall, the bypass roads, the settlements, nature reserves, the resources of the Jordan Valley, and more. I ask him what can possibly give him hope for the future and he tells me, “I believe in humanity and I believe that someday somebody will say enough is enough.“

In the village of Walajah, we visit two ARIJ projects partially funded by Mennonite Central Committee. The first is a waste water treatment system installed in 180 homes that treats waste water so it can be used for irrigation. The system provides these families a far cheaper alternative to sewage treatment than was earlier available, if it was available at all.  

In Ayman’s home, we see a new aquaponics project demonstrated that provides clean water and fish for eating. The project is still an experiment and it does not yet provide enough water or food to be profitable, but it is still a source of hope for what might be possible someday.

Here in the West Bank, throats are parched and eyes are growing dim waiting for God, but there is still hope. Save us, God, before we are overcome, I cry as I wait with them.

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hearing the words of the prophet

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. 
 - Isaiah 29:18

More than 150 students are enrolled at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Amman, Jordan. Brother Andrew says the Institute works with 60 partners in the region to locate people who are sensory impaired or who are multi-disabled.

Nadia (with Brother Andrew above) was deaf and became blind at age 20. At the institute, she has become a substitute mother for many of the small children.

In addition to its work with students, the institute provides teacher and technician training for others who work with the 15-20,000 people who are deaf in Jordan. The institute trains sign language interpreters at the university and is in the process of publishing a sign language dictionary as part of celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Recently, Brother Andrew has caught a vision for taking the institute’s services to the nearby Syrian refugee camp. He has just opened a new center there.

I am pleased that the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf is a Mennonite Central Committee Global Family Project. MCC has helped fund an exercise area for children who are both deaf and blind.

In Isaiah 29, the prophet points to a day when the deaf shall hear and the blind shall see. At the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, the prophet’s words are becoming a reality. 
Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.