Sabeel's Inernational Conference focussed on the Nakba (the "catastrophe" experienced by Palestinians in 1948) convened Wednesday night with an ecumenical worship service at the magnificemt Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Well over 200 of us sang lustily and prayed quietly in a setting that tempts one to the sin of architectural idolatry. Following the service we gathered in a cavernous meeting hall for a reception and viewing of the wonderful tapestries created by the more than 2,000 square patches stitched and painted by advocates for justice and peace all over the world.
Thursday was a day of presentations at the hotel where I am staying. The Golden Crown sits at the edge of the mountain on which Nazareth sits and looks out over the rich agricultural plain that stretches for miles to the west. Ironically, the hotel was completed in 2000, just before the second Intifada totally shut down the tourist business. As a very large invesrment sat empty, it was turned into a prison complete with a watch tower for undocumented immigrants. It was reopened as a hotel two years ago and is now doing a thriving business. In fact, all of Israel is thriving with hotels in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth totally full.
One of the benefits of these conferences is the opportunity to sit with remarkable people. Ever since I read Jean Zaru's Occupied with Nonviolence, she has become one of my heroes. She's probably in her sixties, is the moderator of the Quaker meeting in Ramallah and is now one of the strongest Christian voices for non-violent resistance to oppression and reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor. A remarkable woman with whom I've been delighted to hang around with for the last few days. We've talked a lot about the situation with Hamas and Fatah and the basis, theological and cultural, for the competing claims of Israelis and Palestinians for this land as their homeland.
Opinion about the struggle between Hamas and Fatah is clearly divided among Palestinians. Fadi is very distrustful of Hamas (he believes members on the West Bank are arming to overthrow Fatah) and believes a Palestinian state might be created out of the West Bank alone, allowing the Palestinians to work out over time some reconnection between the West Bank and Gaza. Estephan is frustrated with both Hamas and Fatah and wishes for a third party to lead the Palestinian people to force these warring parties to get their acts together. Palestine needs a unified government; and he fears this historical moment is critical for their future. While not a supporter of Hamas, Jean thinks Fatah has continued making political arrests of Hamas on the West Bank simply to maintain their hold on power. Their refusal to release these prisoners, accused of no crimes, led to the abandonment of the meeting in Egypt last weekend. The struggle for power, however described, is clearly making it harder for the Palestinian people to negotiate from strength. The political machinations of both Israelis and Palestinians surely rivals any of the best we can produce in the US.
The central question of a homeland was addressed yesterday by a Palestinian scholar and an Israeli Zionist (admittedly very liberal) rabbi. A fascinating discussion. I was most admiring of the rabbi's willingness to speak and be quetioned by this bunch of wild-eyed peaceniks. (Actually, most seem remarkably sane; there are always some professional protesters with whom I struggle). Rabbi Ascherman talked about God's covenant with the Jews as not an exclusive covenant but one that gave them a right (no less and no more than that of the Palestinians) to this homeland. Referring to the scriptural basis for this right always sounds to me like the trump card. "God gave us this land. So that's the end of the discussion." I thought the rabbi's interpretation opened the way to a shared understanding.
Later, Jean talked about her not so positive eperience with Jewish-Christian dialogue at the level of the World Council of Churches. Her take has been that the Jewish side has required three criteria be met before convesations could begin. First, that Christians accept Jewish self-understanding of themselves including their connection to the land. Secondly, Christians acknowledge their guilt for the persecution of Jews. And third, criticism of Israel is personal and inheritantly anti-Semitic. I doubt all have been so dogmatic, but I'm aware Jewish-Xn dialogue in Chicago about the Is/Pal conflict has not been possible for similar reasons. This rabbi and a Jewish theologian at Hartford seminary (Landau?) sound a very different and promising note.