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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back from Jerusalem

My family and I just returned from a weekend trip to Jerusalem, where we stayed with some good American friends who have lived and worked in the region for more than seven years. We enjoyed the opportunity to simply spend time with our friends, but we enjoyed the visit at another level: they were the perfect people to introduce us to the complexity and diversity of Israeli culture. My friend is fluent in Hebrew and speaks excellent Arabic, and he studied religion at Hebrew university. His wife also speaks good Hebrew and majored in Islamic studies. They are Christian and have worked for a number of years with a Christian nonprofit that provides lifesaving medical services for Gazan and Iraqi children. They are politically centrist and have lived and worked in Israel and the Palestinian Territories long enough to know the good and the bad traits of each culture. The conversation all weekend was fascinating.

Other than a brief C-17 flight in and out of Ben Gurion airport, this was my first visit to Israel. I am hoping to spend as much time as possible in Israel while living in Jordan, because I want to understand both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as much as possible. I'm sensitive to the insidious danger of bias that can come from immersing myself in just one side. My friend and I discussed this at length this weekend; many well-intended "peacemakers" who enter the region quickly lose any semblance of neutrality. My friend knows a number of humanitarian workers who became deeply embittered against Israel after moving into the West Bank. He tells me many of the Christian churches in Jerusalem tend to be overwhelmingly pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. One church he knows used its Easter service--the most sacred day in the Christian faith--to rail against Israeli settlements. On the other hand, Jerusalem is a magnet for radical right-wing Jews and Christians who do immense harm to prospects for peaceful coexistence. The secular world has the same divergence. The Israelis and Palestinians/Arabs frame the conflict in totally different ways. No matter how hard one tries to be objective, it's difficult when the very language used on each side of the con