Jack Sara, the president of Bethlehem Bible College, asked a group of visiting Americans: “What do you think when you hear `Palestinian’?” No one responded, perhaps because of embarrassment, so Sara gave the answer: “Terrorists.”
When U.S. residents hear “Palestinian” we likely think of terrorists firing deadly rockets into Israeli settlements … the image we have from television news reports. Sara’s point, of course, is that all Palestinians are not terrorists. Nor are they necessarily Muslims. Sara is a Christian Palestinian Arab – and a citizen of Israel.
To understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — or any conflict for that matter — means not making assumptions about groups of people ... not painting our fellow humans with a broad brush. Think about the U.S. citizens honestly trying to understand race relations here. We will fail to understand as long as assumptions about an entire group of people are based on the behavior of the few.
Sara grew up with George Filmon, our guide on a recent comprehensive nine-day tour of Israel. They were full, often exhausting (for me) days, visiting many holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Cana and Nazareth as well as archeological and historical places of interest such as Jericho, Megiddo, Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered) and Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea. In Jerusalem we also saw the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum; the Israel Museum and David’s Citadel Museum, a vivid history of Jerusalem.
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King David – the same young shepherd who killed Goliath – built a small city of about 15 acres on an important crossroads of the ancient world – a link between Egypt and Arabia. Jerusalem grew and was ruled by Jews, Christians and Muslims, the latter holding power for some 1,300 years.
Following World War I, the British ruled Palestine (a name from Roman rule in the first century) until the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Millions of Palestinians were forced from or fled their homeland. It should not be difficult to understand the frustrations of the Palestinian people, which Sara talked about.
He pointed to Palestinian homes adjoining Bethlehem Bible College. The rooftops included water tanks, which Sara told us are not part of his own house in Jerusalem. Water flows to Jerusalem, he said, but not so regularly to Bethlehem which is under Palestinian control.
The Shepherd Society, established in 1996, is a mission of the college. The name refers to Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The agency is similar to our Helping Hand organizations, but also assists with medical bills, tuition and job creation and helps maintain an Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic at a local hospital. In its flier, The Shepherd Society says: “Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike have become steadily improvished by the losses of their ancestral lands, their jobs, and their freedom of movement.”
Bethlehem Bible College and organizations such as Musalaha, a reconciliation ministry founded by Salim and Kay Munayer, work hard to help Palestinians in practical ways and to give them hope. A Musalaha newsletter says: “Do you know that all conflicts come to an end? Oppression cannot last forever.”
“Khirbet Khizeh,” a novel published in Hebrew in 1949 and only now available in the United States, tells of an Israeli intelligence officer’s struggles with his conscience as his unit rounded up women, children and old people in a Palestinian village. The young men had fled. “The village was demolished to make way for the new Jewish state,” Dexter Filkins writes in The New York Times Book Review.
In his story, Yizhar Smilansky, the officer who later served many years in the Israeli Parliament, provocatively compares the departing Palestinians to Jews deported to Nazi concentration camps in Europe only a few years prior. “The victims, that is, are now the oppressors,” Filkins writes. “The expulsion of the Palestinians might have been an unavoidable consequence of the establishment of Israel, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.”