Am I my brother’s keeper?

Many of you will not heard of “Operation Brother’s Keeper”, and I wish I had not. The phrase comes from the story in the Bible in which Cain kills his brother out of envy. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain replies evasively, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The military operation by this name was beginning early Friday in the West Bank, and perhaps far earlier than that. Just a few days prior to Friday, we had visited a small, rural community that had experienced a night raid by several hundred soldiers. The community reported that this was not the first time recently that they had experienced such a raid, complete with sound bombs, home invasions, property destruction and arrests. These are exactly the sorts of tactics that are now being used throughout the West Bank in all major cities in a huge operation, complete with city closures.

The official story is that the operation is reacting to the reported kidnapping of three yeshiva students, the military operation ostensibly exists to find these three students and bring them safely home. The operation as it is being carried out, however, is creating a collective punishment across the West Bank affecting every civilian.

Friday noon, June 13, I was on my way back with a UN officer from a visit to an impoverished community. As we returned to Hebron, we saw that at the entrance to the city, soldiers were searching all cars entering and leaving the city. As we were flagged through, wondering what was going on, I was not especially concerned. The presence of military checkpoints and searches, signs of the ever-present occupation, is unfortunately common in the West Bank. We returned to my quiet neighborhood of Taffuh, on the outskirts of the city of Hebron. I had become fond of Taffuh, a pleasant community with a little grocery below the apartment whose owners were always willing to try to communicate with the ignorant American who spoke so little Arabic. I was fond of my local contact and his wife, who had welcomed me into their midst, and whose children were always so beautiful, funny, and enjoyable to be around.

Afternoon was quiet as I packed for the airport, filled with a mix of emotions. I had been living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for a month, visiting old friends and making new ones, and taking the temperature of the region. People were tremendously welcoming as always, but to a one, they reported how things had changed for the worse since I had last been in the area in 2011, with more land taken, more threats, more losses. In the face of all this, many had become saddened, but there was also a tremendous and vital determination to work for a more abundant life even in the midst of the many restrictions to which the people are subjected on a daily basis.

On that Friday, I was eager to get home to my family, but already missing the people I was saying goodbye to, especially in Bethlehem, Hebron, and the South Hebron area. Leaving the city in a taxi was no particular problem. I quickly forgot about the soldiers at the entrances to the city, blissfully unaware of what was about to occur.

The airport was lightly staffed late in the evening and passage through was polite, full of “Shabbat Shalom” and “Todah”, polite greetings that belied the activities on the ground where I had so recently lived. For while I was boarding the plane, eating my meal, going to sleep as we flew off to the West, hundreds of heavily armed soldiers had begun to converge on the city of Hebron. By the next day, the Taffuh neighborhood, where I had been living, was a combat zone full of soldiers, who were violently breaking into civilian homes, standing armed on rooftops in a show of force, making arrests, and generally, terrorizing the local population. As I landed and began to read postings on social media, I began to see the incredible suffering that was beginning to take place. It was shocking and heartrending.

Christian Peacemaker Teams made a video of exactly the kind of terror I am talking about. It is a video of a home invasion of a family I am familiar with. Please take a look. Instead of knocking on the door, the soldiers blew open the door with explosives, sending shrapnel through the house, seriously injuring a child. 

Mothers of Israel: Be brokenhearted for this child whose welfare has been treated so callously.  Feel for him and his parents who suffer his wounds in their hearts.

Be brokenhearted for your sons and daughters, soldiers whose consciences are seared by having to carry out such horrible orders, who have to break into such homes with stony faces while listening to the screams of children covered with broken glass and shards of metal.

Do they think of the hearing loss of children, caused by the sound bombs? Do they have nightmares about the way they prevented the access of ambulances? How do they make sense of the command to love the neighbor as oneself, when they are given such orders as these?

In the video, these people – men, women, children, infants – are suffering collective punishment by a foreign government’s army.  Perhaps we forget, those of us who are comfortable here, because we do not know what occupation means. This is what occupation means, and to be powerless in the face of this happening over and over and over again.

Am I my brother’s keeper? We might well ask, “Who is my brother?” There are a LOT of victims here. Israel, the yeshiva students who have been kidnapped are your sons and brothers – and mine. No matter that I do not know them; I am praying for their safe return, and I recognize the necessity of working for their freedom. But the whole civilian population of the West Bank are also our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and friends. And they deserve to be treated with the respect and the rights due to any human being. To the extent that any of us deny the humanity of the people who live alongside us, we miss the point of being our brother’s keeper, entirely.

The Qawasmeh Family Story

This is a video shot by Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, documenting a home invasion that took place a week ago by the army as part of the “Operation Brother’s Keeper.” Army incursions throughout the West Bank have been terrorizing civilians in this way for 7 days now.

Hallas.

This is the remains of the sound bomb the army threw through the opening above the door in the middle of the night.  Image

When it went off, its force cracked the plaster of the interior walls.  There were 5 children sleeping in the house at the time, the youngest around 5 months of age, the oldest perhaps 8 years, along with parents and elders. Can you imagine it, the loudness of the sound, the sudden terror?  And then the soldiers coming in?

The soldiers had blocked the village road for hours beginning in the middle of the evening, but it was around midnight when they invaded, hundreds of them storming the community, and began to enter the houses.  They didn’t tell anyone what they were looking for, but they systematically broke through dressers full of clothes, pulling the doors off rooms, and generally causing mayhem.  They arrested a young man and took him four kilometers away, bound his hands with a zip tie,  held him until 4 AM, and then released him to walk home in the dark, with his hands still tied.  It was a cold night, in a dark place with only the light from the moon and stars.

It’s not the first time.  It’s an ongoing problem for these people; this has happened several times.  And I could tell you where, and I could show you pictures of the door that was bashed off its hinges or the piles of clothing and mattresses thrown on the floor.  Pictures of the tired little children.  But I’ll just leave it at this:

As I left, one gentleman said to me kindly, “This is your village now. You are welcome.  Come anytime.” 

They gave us coffee and then they made us tea, and they told us the story and they showed us the damages.

I am at the same time overwhelmed by hospitality and completely full to the brim with this kind of story.  I am sick of cruelty.  Hallas. Enough.

Schwei

Schwei,….

I’ve become very familiar with the word, “Schwei,” which is an English transliteration of an Arabic word that means “a little” or “a very little”, or perhaps, “slowly.” That is, if I understand correctly. When someone asks me if I speak Arabic, my response is an apologetic, “Schwei, schwei.” For many, it is equivalent to how much English they speak, and for others, they are gracious in making up for what I lack in the way of language. Somehow, we get by.

Today I got a photo of a young pomegranate tree, which has the beginnings of fruits on it. Can’t seem to load the photo, which is too bad because it’s very CUTE.  But alas, also not edible.  I love pomegranates, and one sadness about coming in May is that these fruits will not be ready while I am here.

I’m struck that the fruit we wait for in our lives often comes little by little, slowly. This is frustrating when we want the fruit to be ripe now.  When people are hungry now.  We want all sorts of solutions to big problems to come now, in a big way comparable to the bigness of the issue, perhaps with a big announcement or fireworks or in the wake of the arrival of a famous personality. But these kinds of big events, while they draw our attention, generally do not solve our biggest problems. The Pope may visit the Holy Land, but when he leaves, the issues remain. And the Pope knows this, which is why he has invited the principle politicians to come and pray with him. Generally speaking, solutions to big problems come “schwei,” slowly, like ripening fruit.  And meanwhile, the need continues.

From the Mount of Olives, where I am staying, I have the view to the east of the Dead Sea and, closer in, Bethany. Jericho would be to the north of what I can see from this vantage point. Tradition in these parts says that it was near Jericho that Jesus faced the temptations of Satan, one of which was the temptation to make a bid for celebrity with a big memorable event. “Throw yourself down,” the Devil said, “and God will save you.” In this way, Jesus could, perhaps ,quickly make a name for himself. Fame would surely help him with his programme of salvation; why not?

But Jesus discerned that the way forward was not the meteoric rise to stardom, but instead, it was the insignificant way, the slow way, the way not strewn with accolades but rather, with relationships. With questions. With troubles. With insights and healings too.  Seeing the great need, He must have wanted to make a big difference, but he was led in a way that met people’s needs one at a time, step by step.

Little by little, later in his life, he made his way from Jericho across this desert landscape, traversing the dry wilderness where he had been tempted, on his way to Jerusalem. He had an intuition of what awaited him there. Yet he continued. Schwei, schwei, even in darkness, he continued to walk the path God set before him. 

Schwei. What I want is the fruit.  What I see is its beginning.  What I want is fireworks, a big blast, but what I get is the candle. So, I have been lighting candles in anticipation of the coming of daybreak.  They are little lights, but their steady flames await the coming dawn.

To feel….

There’s a worn foam mattress that serves as a sitting place on a hill in Palestine. It sits on an old metal frame, in the weeds growing underfoot, under the remains of an animal shelter whose tin roof is supported by iron poles, but whose walls lie like great shards of shrapnel on the ground. From the open-air shelter, if you care to look, you can see across from this hill to the next and the next, the beautiful hills of Palestine. Cast your gaze nearer and you will see a gutted white van, a shell of a vehicle, which serves as a home for the man I met today, the man whose home was demolished years ago here, whose animal shelter’s walls were broken open. The man who stays up here to tend his sheep.

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Word has it that he once had over 250 sheep, although none are to be seen now. I hear they are somewhere nearby in a cave, that is, the 50 that remain, along with the three cows. These animals represent the whole livelihood for the man and his family.

Beside us we can see the remains of the home itself, a monument to a time of cruelty. Word is that 17 people lived together on this hill, in the good times, before the army came and the bulldozers rolled the house into a monumental heap of rebar and concrete.

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The owner is smiling today, talking with friends who have come to visit. His three sons have also come and are standing beside him in the sun. The old cistern was also destroyed, but there is a new one. Water is life. If there is water and friendship, there can be hope.

I still have tiny thorns embedded in my hand from when I stumbled a week ago in a field not unlike this one, where a man’s fruit groves had been plowed under and I felt it and I stumbled on a stone and braced myself in the falling, and there were thorn bushes where my hand landed. I still have thorns embedded in my hand, like splinters. They were the bush’s line of defense and I do not blame the bush. There was no cruelty in it. The thorns are in me – but they do not hurt.

I look at the man who lives in the shell of the van and know that I should feel something. The story of this man is in my heart now like the thorns in my hand. Yet I stand on the hillside and realize that I don’t feel. It’s one more in a long, long, long line of woes that have become the norm, the miserable norm, and I don’t feel it. I think perhaps it is too big to feel all at once. Perhaps I am protected from it. There is a feeling inside the story that I bear witness to, and I think I will know it later and it will tell me its name and I will know what to do with it. There will come a time. For now, I just tell the story, slowly. Hear the story, a story which is not like the story of the thorn bush that buried its thorns in my hand. This story is a story of cruelty. There is a hill where a man lives in the shell of a van, to care for the sheep somewhere near in a cave, who have no other place, and his kids come up to visit him. And this has come to pass because it was done to him, on purpose.  And this thing is being done over and over again, and the world is not feeling it.  And it must.  It must.

I ponder this now from my desk at the place where I hang my hat these days, and then there is a knock on the door. A boy and girl stand there, my neighbors’ children, smiling at me.   It is the last day of school, and they are very happy. “We are going for a walk,” they say, “do you want to come?” It is a kindness, pure and simple,  and I welcome it. “That sounds like fun, how long a walk will it be?” The boy smiles. He has on his soccer shoes, bright blue. “Ten Kilometers!”, he says proudly. “Well then,” I reply, with a smile of my own, “I must get on my athletic shoes.”

And so we go together to enjoy the cool air of sunset.

“Do you not have a saying, four months, and then the harvest? Lift up your eyes and behold the countryside, that it is white,

ready for harvest….” John 4:35 ff.Image

It is harvest time for grain crops in the West Bank, and as we drive around we keep seeing the heads of grain blowing in the wind. The fields are white, just as Jesus describes them, in the bright sun. Jesus spoke these words in Samaria, right after he had spoken to the Samaritan woman at the well. The disciples had brought him something to eat, but he had not wanted the food, saying he had food the disciples did not know about. “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not have a saying…?”

We are advised to lift up our eyes and behold. Opportunity to serve others was all around the disciples, even opportunities that involved crossing boundaries, and seeing people with new eyes. Jesus advised them to lift up their eyes and behold how it was in the present place and moment, not some distant future, that God’s work is to be done. The disciples were invited to reap where they were on that very day, a harvest they have not sown, so that sower and reaper would rejoice together.

What is God inviting you to do today?  How are you invited in the present moment to participate with Jesus in the harvest of peace and justice and righteousness? 

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