Where’s the “Holy” in the Holy Land?

Where’s the “Holy” in the Holy Land?

by Karen Leslie Hernandez

Since I can remember, there’s been a conflict in the Middle East. In fact, the conflict in the Middle East surpasses any of our living memories and is engrained in the beautiful, Middle Eastern culture more than I think we, or even those who live there, will ever understand. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is a protracted conflict – meaning the people there only understand violence and retaliatory behavior, as that is what they have always known and lived with.

As a kid, I remember seeing news reports of violence in Israel and Palestine. As I entered adulthood, I was always in a quandary over this because as a Christian, I wondered how a place called the “holy land,” that has people from the three Abrahamic faiths living side by side, maintains the level of violence and hatred that it does. What I have witnessed in my lifetime with the conflict in the Middle East is anything but holy.

My idea of holy is pure, faithful, full of grace, Godly, and good. There’s no goodness, purity, God, or grace in the actions of the Israelis or of the Palestinians. However, conflict is a human tendency that stems from fear, retaliation, hate, ignorance, and many other factors that are too numerous to name here.

I could discuss and question who started the conflict—who threw the first stone? Who killed the first Jew? Who launched missiles at whom? Who dropped bombs on whom? Who’s taking the land from the Palestinians? Who is suffering more? Who is more scared? Who blew up the bus last month in Tel Aviv? Which settlers attacked a Palestinian shepherd or child in the village of A-Tuwani? I can wonder here why the separation wall is working; why the separation wall is destructive to the Palestinian livelihood; why the people in Sderot are traumatized by missiles from Gaza; why Gaza is a massive human rights violation; and why the Palestinians elected Hamas to represent them. Why did a member of the Israeli cabinet use the forbidden word “shoah,” last month when referring to the conflict with Palestine? Why, earlier this year, did Israelis Tweet with joy at the death of Palestinian children dying in a bus crash? Why do Palestinians rejoice in the death of those “Zionist Jews?”  I struggle with how a self-proclaimed Zionist told me that he didn’t even recognize the Palestinians as a people – that there’s no such thing as a Palestinian. I struggle with why are there check points across Israel that create extreme hardship for the Palestinians, and those that need to get to a hospital on the other side of the check point, often die because they are held up waiting for approval to get through the check point. Then, I ponder how the check points have helped terrorism drop by more than 50%. The reality is, this conflict is mired in history, theology, and hatred, and I simply have no answers here; only more questions.

Yes, there’s a lot to this conflict. I have studied it, and I lived in it for a very short time. I certainly do not claim to comprehend it more than those living it. I am an outsider, looking in.

I experienced a Color Red in Sderot in March of 2009, and admittedly, it was somewhat traumatizing. Once the alarm sounds, you have fifteen seconds to take cover. Then, you wait. I was not in a fortified bomb shelter, but in the back of a coffee shop with film maker, Laura Bialis. After the warning sounded, we ran to the “safest” place we could find, and then, we just stood there, waiting. You don’t know where the missile will hit, or if in fifteen seconds, you will die. I can see why people in Sderot want Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other splinter groups in Gaza to stop launching these missiles. It is terrorism and it is not acceptable.

I experienced the freedom of driving on “clean roads,” so named by the Israelis, where no Palestinians are allowed to drive on these roads to keep the Israelis safe from harm. It took me an hour or so to get from Jerusalem to Nablus, where if I drove on the road the Palestinians are allowed on, it would have taken me about four hours. This type of action is full of mind games and the language, “clean roads,” has genocidal connotations and is oppressive beyond reproach. Not allowing people to drive on their roads is bad enough, but the use of such language, from a people who have suffered the worst genocide in human history, is appalling.

The overall use of language is, in my opinion, a serious problem in this conflict. I often hear words such as occupation, radical, extremist, Zionist, terrorist, separation wall, wall of apartheid, and so many more descriptive words used by both sides. I once used the word “occupation” with someone who was Jewish, and he made sure to correct me and say it is not an “occupation” it is “protection.” I guess it is a matter of opinion. I have had another Jewish doctor in my life joke with me and say, “Tell the settlers I said, ‘Hi and Good job! Keep taking our land back.’”

I have heard story after story from the Palestinians of oppressive take overs, countless men and young boys being gathered up and thrown unfairly into jail because they are considered threats; olive groves being destroyed in the name of God, and land claimed by the Israeli people because the Bible, according to them, states that it is the “promised land.” I have also heard about the unfathomable deaths of countless Palestinian children—the most innocent of all in this conflict.

The question begs—whose land is it anyway? In the year 2012, can we really accept scripture as the impetus for this conflict? In the end, scriptural interpretation is a matter of just that—interpretation. Of course I am not saying that scripture does not matter, but interpretation to benefit your own needs is not something that I believe God would condone. War, conflict, hatred, and intolerance are not included in God’s plan for us. Those, again, are human tendencies, that are caught up in our own righteousness and selfishness.

I would like to think that the Middle East is everyone’s land. It is the holy land, after all, and has meaning to all Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Mary, and so many more holy figures touched this part of the earth with their wisdom and experience, and all are historical figures that the people from the Abrahamic faiths revere.

As an outsider, what am I to do with all if this information? As a theologian who is trying to theologically and philosophically understand conflict, whose work is to create understanding and ideas of coexistence, I am at a loss when it comes to this conflict. It is not my job to solve this conflict, but, I believe it is my place to educate about what I know and what I understand, so others understand. As a fellow human being, I simply want peace for these people who have no idea what peace looks or feels like.

One of the biggest influences in my life is Elie Wiesel.  A prolific Jew, a holocaust survivor, author of over fifty books including, “Night,” and my professor for three semesters, I have learned so much from this man and I understand the need and the desire for the Jewish people to have a land they can call their own.

However, I do not understand, nor will I ever condone, Israel’s actions when it comes to the Palestinian people, who, are, by the way, a people.

If I learned anything from Professor Wiesel, it is to not remain silent. It is to speak my mind, even when people do not agree. With that knowledge, I must say that I am not for the Jewish side, or for the Palestinian side—I am for the human side. If Professor Wiesel taught me anything else, it is to recognize the importance of our humanity. Before we are Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or even Atheist, we are human.

The dehumanization of human beings is the most disconcerting aspect of any conflict. We saw it last month in the dragging of a supposed Israeli spy in Gaza , and we saw it in the death of all the children and women in Gaza last month, including one of the first children to die, Omar Misharawi.

We have seen this dehumanization before—in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Vietnam, and every war or conflict our world has witnessed. Something happens during war, where humans suddenly lose all sense of what it means to be human. Is this fear? Hatred? Anger? I believe it is all three and many more factors. It seems this is the root of where conflict should be addressed—how can we, in times of conflict, not dehumanize? Is this even possible? Many would say that the first step of any conflict is to avoid the conflict. I agree. Yet, do humans understand that concept? Are humans capable of this? I am not sure. It all comes down to the fact that as history has proven, we have not learned from our past mistakes. As humans, we admire, revere, and even desire war to “get even.”

I have no answers here. I have no suggestions, really. What I do know is this—it is easy to keep blaming, to keep pointing fingers, and to keep fighting. It is easier to hold on to anger, hatred and practice intolerance, but it is not easy to step back and view the “other” as human beings. Frankly, I am tired of hearing land claims, truth claims, religious claims, who hurt whom first claims, for justification of hurting our fellow human beings. It is time to view this conflict in this century—to understand that the losses on both sides are immense, yes, but, those are past and people cannot keep holding on to the idea of retaliation. Retaliation only brings more intolerance and what we have today in the Middle East—a protracted conflict.

There is no holy in the Middle Eastern conflict. There is nothing holy in the holy land right now. There are only people who hate, fight, and kill one another. Israel cannot continue to be the bully that it has been, and the Palestinian people must stop their tendencies to side with the militant Islamic groups. As a neutral voice that cares about the people, the culture, the history, and the theological importance of this area of the world, there is no other easy way to say this. In the end, I hope and pray for peace, understanding, and tolerance. I believe that these beautiful people who believe in the same God, yet pray to God in two different languages, while living next to each other, can coexist. I believe that is what God wants, but what God wants and what people want, are usually two different things. Tolerance and peace are a choice. Let us send this area of the world our hope and our dream that they can find common ground to live by, for it is on this common ground, that we can all find one another.

Karen Leslie Hernandez writes a regular column on State of Formation where she is Associate Director of Communications.  She is a Theologian with a focus on Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism. She writes, teaches and lectures on Islam, Christian-Muslim relations worldwide (past and present), Jesus in the Qur’an, Al Qaeda, Islamophobia, and theological responses to terrorism.  She has a Master of Sacred Theology in Religion and Conflict Transformation from Boston University School of Theology, ‘11; a Master of Theological Research in Christian-Muslim Understanding from Andover Newton Theological School, ‘07; and a BA in Peace and Justice Studies with a concentration in Islam from Wellesley College, ‘05.