Give It a Try
Today marks the first day of Advent. This year, as last year, I am in Bethlehem. This year, as last year, there was a Christmas Bazaar in Manger Square, with booths featuring items from different European countries and local Bethlehem clubs. This year, as last year, I bought note cards highlighting the paintings of a Palestinian artist.
Unlike last year, there was no band playing Christmas music. Admittedly, I didn't miss the music, but I did miss what it represented - an atmosphere of joy and festivity. Next week, when the Christmas tree in Bethlehem is officially lit up, there will be no fireworks as in previous years.
Those there was some excitement, in general the atmosphere in Bethlehem is subdued. The same is true in Hebron. The same is true in Jerusalem. I imagine it's true in other places, but I can't speak for them.
In the months of October and November, around 100 Palestinians have died, sometimes as a result of carrying out attacks against Israelis, sometimes in clashes, sometimes in extrajudicial executions. According to UN reports, over 10,000 Palestinians have been injured in October and November. About 20 Israelis have been killed and fewer than 200 have been injured. I offer only approximations, because these numbers change daily or even hourly.
More Palestinian homes have been demolished. Home raids are a nightly occurrence. Israel has blocked the main entrances to some villages, making access to anywhere outside of them much more difficult and circuitous. The Israeli military has recently raided and shut down three radio stations in Hebron for at least six months. They have arrested activists - both Palestinian and international. This is only a partial list of ways violence is rippling through the area.
Israel also had meetings this week with officials from Google and YouTube to try to censor videos and other online materials that show the violence from the Palestinian perspective, the perspective of those living under an increasingly harsh and violent military occupation. I wonder what "the only democracy in the Middle East" and its "most moral army in the world" are trying to hide.
Thursday morning, I witnessed soldiers run out of a Palestinian area and ambush two children. Ambush is the only possible word I can use to describe it. The boys were standing near us as other boys were starting to throw stones at the checkpoint. Then the soldiers came from, seemingly, nowhere and grabbed them violently and carried them off. We were so shocked it was only after the fact that we could gather our thoughts about possible ways we could have responded. One of the boys was twelve-years-old and was released after a couple of hours. I don't know what happened with the older boy. That morning also saw teargas, sounds bombs, rubber-coated steel bullets, skunk water, and some Palestinian men who responded to the chaos in ways that were less than helpful. Before any of the above happened, we saw that another road near the checkpoint we monitor in the morning had been blocked with giant concrete cylinders. It was a hard morning. Even the sunshine and blue sky could not make up for the darkness that befell my, my teammate's, and likely others', spirits.
I felt heavy all day. My teammates and I ate dinner out. There was a birthday party going on there, too. Children were popping balloons; I was glad when they stopped. My spirits began to rise as my body was fed. Back at the house after dinner, my body again began to tense as Israeli soldiers were doing who-knows-what on the street outside our building. It involved yelling and one of the things I heard distinctly in English was "F--- you, you piece of s--t. F---ing Arab!" Because they were on Shuhada Street, where Palestinians are not allowed, I wondered what inspired that particular outburst (among the many in Hebrew). Finally, they went back to the base down the street and the night was quiet.
A little later I got to talk to a number of family members who were gathered for Thanksgiving. It wasn't until then, late Thursday night, that I was able to shake the darkness of the morning. One relative asked a question that left me thinking, mostly because I didn't have a ready answer: Are you accomplishing what you hoped to accomplish?
My discomfort with the question surprised me. I don't know what she thinks I'm doing or what she thinks I'm trying to accomplish. I'm also not sure she believes I should be here. I had to remind myself that what I perceive to be a lack of support from her (and I honestly don't know if it is simply my perception or an actuality) is not important; what I need to focus on is the support I know I have, the support that energizes me to be here and nurtures me so that I can do what I came to do.
I wish I had had the presence to tell her that what I hope to accomplish, the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, is not something I expect to see during any one stint or even over many. And my work is only a very small piece of the larger movement working towards that end. I wish I had said that I am here to be in solidarity with people who are struggling to live a dignified life, despite the obstacles they face. I am here to bring light to a dark place and to amplify the light that shines here already. I am here to act as witness most often, as advocate when possible. I am here because sometimes my presence means that Israeli soldiers won't act quite as brutally as they would if I weren't watching. I am here to share my heart and to bring the love of many others along with me. I am here because I've answered an unwelcome call with the only proper answer: yes. I call it unwelcome because I wish this work were not necessary. I call it unwelcome, but let me be clear that it is an honor and a gift to stand with people who carry far more weight than I ever will, who teach me over and over again the meaning of "hospitality," "courage," "joy," "steadfastness." I hope that I can be a good student to my teachers.
Last year and this year, my colleagues at work have sent me with notes - one to open nearly every day I am here. I cannot adequately express what a gift this is, what gifts they are in my life; they, too are my teachers. I start each work day here by opening a card; the words - sometimes those of my colleagues, sometimes quoted from others - fortify me for the day.
I'd like to share from the last three I opened. One held words about the practice of nonviolence as nourishment for the soul, in the same way that food replenishes the body.
Another, a poem by Wendell Berry with the refrain, "what we need is here."
The third contained these words:
"It's impossible," said Pride,
"It's risky," said Experience.
"It's pointless," said Reason,
"Give it a try," whispered the Heart.
On this first day of Advent, in this place jolted by violence, weary of it, fearful of it, and not yet ready or able to be free from it, my soul knows the nourishment of nonviolence, even in my imperfect practice of it. My mind knows that what I need is here, what we need to sustain peace is here within each of us, though we have yet to access it or to fully trust its presence. My heart whispers, "Give it a try."
It is not just in Israel/Palestine where we must give it a try. In the U.S. Syrian refugees are asking us to try love and not fear. People of color are asking us. Muslims are asking us, too. Other people, other places, our Mother Earth are all asking us, "Give it a try." Lean into Love.
So I give it a try here. And I will give it a try wherever I walk. I hope that we, all of us, will use this time of Advent, this time of waiting, to prepare our minds, bodies, hearts, and souls to foster peace, trust, and courage, so that when we again welcome the Prince of Peace, we will do so with a ready willingness to use our unique gifts to herald a new era of love.
With a welcoming spirit for our teachers.
Give it a try.