by Brandan Robertson and Lauren Byun
Today, our group traveled to the ancient city of Hebron in the West Bank. Hebron is a city that is under the military control of the state of Israel. After spending this entire week in the West Bank feeling incredibly safe and secure, for the first time we got a glimpse of some of the fear that many inhabitants of Hebron constantly live under with the strong presence of the Israeli military.
As we entered into the city, we first stopped at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a mosque and synagogue built over the caves in which Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, and Rebekah are said to be buried. It was one of the most holy sites for both Jews and Muslims. As I sat in the mosque praying, I thought about how the Patriarch Abraham is the father of the three faith‘s being represented- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of our religions trace our lineage back to this one patriarch, and yet today, there is so much division between all three groups. I wondered what Abraham might feel if he were able to see how his inheritance had come to fear each other so profoundly.
After leaving the tomb, we were invited to walk through the portion of the city of Hebron that is under strict Jewish military control- Palestinians are banned from entering. This is the portion of the city were Jewish settlers live, and each settler is afforded great protection from the Jewish military. As we entered, men and women with large guns stood on many street corners, questioning us about what country we were from, and occasionally asking other random questions as a means of what felt like intimidation. Prior to entering, one of the Israeli military guards came and stood next to our group, being led by our Palestinian tour guide, listening intently to what was being said. As we wandered through the Israeli section of Hebron, there was a palpable sense of fear in the air. For the first time during my travel in the Middle East, I think our entire group felt unsafe. We walked quickly through the Jewish portion of the city, and noticed that on many of the walls, the Jewish narrative of Hebron’s history was painted. The Jewish story was of how the Arabs had slaughtered Jews, and how the Jews had recaptured this portion of their land. The story is not false, but it is also not the whole story. Both sides have their narrative seen from their perspective alone. Until we can both sit at the table, owning the wrong that has been done, and also committing to see our common humanity within one another then we have very few options for a unified future in the Middle East.
As we left the Jewish person of Hebron, we entered back into the lively Palestinian portion of the city center, where we were greeted by our tour guide and made our way back to the bus. The overwhelming reality that I experienced today was how much our fear can provoke us to divide, cling to violence and intimidation, which prevents peace from becoming an option. If we are forced to live in fear of one another we will never be able to see the humanity, we will never be able to acknowledge our common heritage, and the chasm between us will only become greater. Jews, Palestinians, and Christians- we are all Abrahams children, all share a common heritage, and we must learn to abandon our fear, abandon our stereotypes, embracing each other and the pain that we’ve experienced if we will ever find lasting peace.
After an overwhelming day in Hebron, today, many of us got to experience a peaceful and enlightening morning with host families. These strangers have opened their homes to us and provided food and entertainment. Perhaps the biggest element of surprise was the comfort given by these families. Personally, I have struggled with my faith and the overlaying question: What has brought me to Israel? What is it that I must learn? People had always told me that God works in mysterious ways and that you’ll feel God presence in mysterious places throughout your life. It’s been around four days since our first arrival to this foreign country. We’ve visited many holy sites, spoken with many Palestinians, and walked in places where Jesus might have walked. Yet I lacked that spiritual connection amongst these uncharted waters. But it was this very morning that I felt the presence of God through an embodiment of love and unity with these people I had spent one night with. There is, in fact, beauty in seeing people who have never met each other converse with one another as if they were old friends. Even if we weren’t to discuss religion or God, I feel as if I would have still felt God’s presence there.
Another fascinating encounter with my spirituality occurred on the top of Masada. Seeing the ruins and feeling the weight of the mountains tower over us all, actually made me feel refreshed and renewed. The view and land expanded for miles and all you can see was the desert and the sea. At first glance, I felt so small and my life seemed to have little or no meaning. How can it? With great creations like these, what significance does my life play in this crazy world? But I approached it in another way; The fact that somewhere and sometime in my life, there were factors in play that helped my decision to come to Palestine/Israel. And within that, I was there at that moment thinking the thoughts I was thinking. The fact that, yes, as humans we are small, but yet, we play a huge role in life. Somewhere our actions affect others which affect others, creating a ripple effect that changes the course of our lives and there is beauty behind that. Feeling so small physically had actually made my actions feel monumental and for a glance looking through God’s eyes, my life seemed to have purpose.
The hectic day closed with a swim in the Dead Sea. It was actually quite a bonding experience to hold one another’s hands as we struggled to stand on the slippery slimy floor. And the satisfaction coming with floating and bobbing our heads in a sea filled with salt. Even though it was a lot of fun and made my skin feel amazing, I will never forget the pain I had experienced when I got a drop of the water in my eyes.