Today we saw the very old and the completely current.
We began with a journey south to Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. This is pretty credible sacred geography. It is the place where Abraham bought a cave for burial. According to Scripture, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried there.[i] And sure enough, there are their tombs. Are they really in them? Probably so. Joseph is supposedly there too but there’s quite a dispute about that here. Some say he lies in Shechem. A building erected by Herod the Great surrounds the tombs. That in itself is pretty impressive.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is sacred to both Jews and Muslims but the animosities make it necessary to divide the building between them. We entered the Muslim part of the building and the Jewish part through different doors, after passing through different security checks. The tombs of Abraham and Sarah can be seen from either side. Isaac and Rebecca are on the Muslim side. Jacob and Leah are on the Jewish side. A bulletproof glass separates the two sides.
The feeling of tragic violence hangs over the Tomb of the Patriarchs. On August 24, 1929, Arabs, incited by false rumors that Jews were killing Arabs in Jerusalem, killed 67 Jews including 23 college students. On February 25, 1994 a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, shot to death 29 Muslims and wounded 125 there in the Ibrahim Mosque, before running out of ammunition and being beaten to death by survivors. In the ensuing riots, Israeli soldiers killed 19 more Palestinians.
Those memories hang like a curtain between the pilgrim and Abraham. I left the Tomb awed by the ancient memory of the patriarchs of three faiths, and deeply disturbed by the killings in a house of prayer so recently. It made me think of the mass murder in the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. This isn’t just the Middle East. It’s us.
Following that sacred but disturbing visit to Hebron, we had two conversations that served to raise our discomfort level. First we visited a Jewish Settlement in Efrata (the Palestinian territory where these settlements are so controversial) and met with an articulate spokesman for the Israeli position. He was a strong advocate who argued well. But I was struck by his refusal to see another interpretation or to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Then we went to a Palestinian Refugee Center and spoke with a young man who was born there 25 years ago. The despair of his life evoked my sympathy, but it also left me feeling he was pretty attached to his victim status. The murals on the walls of his Refugee Center valorized people throwing Molotov cocktails and using other simple weapons against Israelis soldiers. The young man had complained about being treated as a terrorist, but what about these murals?
The day left our group agitated. The conversation has been uneasy, making cases for one side or another, looking for a solution – but I am not at all confident that either side of this conflict wants it resolved. Surely many people on both sides do want peace. But there are enough people on both sides sabotaging peace to make it very hard to resolve – and it strikes me that this has very little to do with religion. It has more to do with meta-narrative, grievance, and a failure of relationship.
I do not have any idea how to help this situation from the outside and I will never be on the inside. So this is just a partial thought about a piece of what needs to happen:
First, both sides are caught up in the meta-narrative of return from exile. It is as if they are fighting over the their role in the narrative as much as they are fighting over the land. Each claims the status of the displaced exile longing to return to a rightful home. Each casts the other as Babylon. Before there can be peace, it will be necessary for the parties to share the meta-narrative, to see each other as exiles, to see themselves as Babylon. And it will be necessary to reinterpret the return from exile as something more relational than territorial. The return from exile is a return to a state of neighborliness. That was not even easily said. It sure won’t be easily done. The recasting of a meta-narrative is seismic. We have our own American meta-narrative that needs recasting; so far be it from me to criticize the Israelis and Palestinians for being stuck in theirs.
Second, both sides have suffered greatly. That cannot be undone. But the present problem is that both sides are attached to their sense of grievance. If one has been aggrieved, one has the moral upper hand, a sort of moral free throw -- that is, the rules do not apply to the aggrieved. Grievance is very sticky indeed. To give up one’s sense of grievance is to step back down into the moral milieu. There are few things more precious to us than our sense of grievance. Sadat gave up land for peace. Would people today give up grievance for peace?
Finally, I wonder how many members of the opposing factions know each other in a particularly personal way. I believe they would have a much better chance of coming to an understanding if they did a lot of relational spadework by telling each other their stories. With a foundation of shared stories, they might begin to explore their interests and find that there are deeper interests, more relational interests, than they have recognized, interests that might be better served by compromise than by perpetuating the conflict that presently serves the meta-narrative of exile and the sense of grievance.
I don’t know how such processes of recasting the meta-narrative, relinquishing the grievance, and sharing the stories could be accomplished on a large scale. I do know we had a Kids For Peace Camp in the Diocese of Atlanta. As I recall, 12 Israeli kids, 12 Palestinian kids, and 12 American kids went to summer camp in North Georgia each year, got to know each other, learned some conflict resolution skills, and became friends. When they went home, they remained friends and created connections among their families. It was a small step, but a real one.
[i] I had to go back to the books to figure our why Rachel wasn’t there. Jacob and Rachel were so star-crossed. Jacob meant to marry Rachel but wound up married to Leah. It took an extra seven years for him to earn Rachel’s hand, then they wound up buried in different places. When Jacob fled from Laban, Rachel stole the household gods. Jacob didn’t know that. When Laban tracked them down, Jacob denied culpability and cursed anyone in his party who had stolen from Laban. The curse fell on Rachel and she died in childbirth near Bethlehem. So that’s where Rachel’s tomb is.