Bethlehem and Beyond
There are certain experiences that mark persons for the rest of their lives. For me, such an experience, though I didn't realize it at the time, was when I arrived, nearly twenty-six years ago, at Tantur, a hilltop overlooking the military checkpoint dividing Israel from the Israeli-occupied West Bank on the main road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. During most of the five months I was to remain there, as a visiting scholar at the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies, I learned something of what it was to live both next to and spend much time in an country occupied by foreign troops.
It was also a time when I learned, first hand, of Palestinian and mid-eastern resentment and anger over US foreign policy, which to those living under Israeli rule, was seen as ultimately responsible for their plight. It was fruitless to try to argue that their situation was caused by their defeat in the 1967 Arab war against Israel. After all, the State of Israel—which they regarded at first as an invasion of mostly European Jews into their homeland—was created by the largely US-dominated United Nations in 1948. Although the UN has since then repeatedly defended what Palestinian rights remained, it has been largely because of repeated US vetoes and US abstentions in the Security Council that Israel has continued to ignore those rights.
No one doubts—except the holocaust-denial fanatics gathered in Tehran this past week—that the Jewish people have suffered from a tragic and horrendous crime that cried for restitution not only from the German people but from all those nations who either cooperated in the crime or ignored what was happening at the time. But can this justly be at the expense of those Palestinian people who share the same Semitic ancestry and whose only difference, it seems, was to have become Christians or Muslims in centuries past? Although I was never treated harshly, nevertheless, I learned first hand, even if just a bit, what it feels like to have to prove my identity to soldiers of an occupation force armed with US-supplied guns. Yet, as I was told, over and over again by Palestinians—at least by those Christians who were staying there trying to desperately hold on to what little land they still had left—what was happening to them could not happen unless it was for the US. It was not a pleasant experience, but nevertheless it was a truly enlightening one.
Fast-forward to the situation we now face in Iraq, the land from where the fabled "wise men" were supposed to have come. There it is not Israelis but we American occupiers who wield the biggest guns. But just as in the Israel-Palestine situation, it is probably too late to impose any kind of order simply through the use of military force. Christians who once lived in Iraq, like those who once lived in Palestine, and who might have convinced others that perhaps there is a better way, have mostly fled. This leaves the rest of the population, which has increasingly reverted to their ancestral tribal loyalties or turned to Islamic fundamentalism, to fight their own civil war.
Looking back on my experience, I'm now more than ever convinced that the road to peace in the Mid-East has to begin with a genuine "conversion"—not so much in the sense of a change of religion, but in an even deeper spiritual sense of the word. As waves of terrorism around the world have shown time after time, peace cannot be won by the power of the bomb or gun. Muslims and Jews, as well as Christians (which includes all those Americans who still like to think of themselves as being Christian) have to be finally and irrevocably convinced that it is only in mutual forgiveness and understanding that peace will ever come. Such a conversion must begin with the confession of wrongs committed and followed by serious, sustained efforts to make up for them. Peace, whether in Baghdad or Beirut, or even more importantly in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, can only begin with the message born two-thousand years ago, but which sadly remains still largely untried—even in the little town of Bethlehem.
R W Kropf 12/19/06