Loving your neighbour in the Middle East

By Mark Beach
1 Sep 2010

Military checkpoints are a way of life for Palestinians in Palestine and Israel. Each day tens of thousands of Palestinians move patiently through turnstiles and narrow caged walkways to go to work, school or home. It is a humiliating experience.

For the Israelis, it could be said that the checkpoints are also indirectly a part of their daily life. It is their sons and daughters who watch as the Palestinians move through the checkpoints to go home, to work, school or worship.

Some of the checkpoints, like the barrier at Shuhada Street in Hebron, lead to an empty, abandoned street with shuttered shops and empty apartments above the street. Palestinians can go only a certain distance along the street before they are turned back.

The checkpoints also carry a metaphorical notion tearing at any sense of neighbourliness that might have been part of the familial and religious upbringing of those entering the turnstiles and those watching them.

Deeply embedded in the religions of the Abrahamic tradition in this region, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is the sense of loving your neighbour as being rooted in the adoration and love of God.

It is in this context that the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), delivered a sermon on the Good Samaritan this past Sunday, 29 August, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, located in the old city of Jerusalem. He spoke in the course of a day in which his WCC delegation saw firsthand many of the barriers that separate people.

The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 describes the qualities of life as it comes forward in "the great commandment to love your neighbour," Tveit said. The real question is who proved to be a good neighbour in this parable.

In the context of Palestine and Israel with their ever-present barriers and violence, all parties are deprived of fulfilling this purpose in life, to love God and their neighbour, he said. "Religion should not prevent us from doing that."

Despite the complexities of the politics and religious differences which are steeped in the recent tragedies as much as historical events of Palestine and Israel, the story of the Good Samaritan exudes a very simple idea of "loving your neighbour".

The story of the Good Samaritan is a story about a man who for whatever reason wanted to go to Jericho, Tveit said to the congregation at Church of the Redeemer. Along the way, his trip was interrupted by violence. "This story is perhaps more real than we want it to be," Tveit said.

When approaching a checkpoint in Palestine and Israel it is hard not to think about neighbours, neighbourhoods and being a neighbour. For Tveit, "in the end everything is about loving your neighbour."

It is a simple and perhaps naive message from the New Testament. How could such a message of loving your neighbour work in a context as complex as this?

Whom we should love is not so complicated, Tveit said. "Moral life is not very sophisticated: it is loving God, loving your neighbour and loving yourself," he said.

Empty streets, separated neighbours

The manifestation of years of violence within Palestine and Israel has meant empty streets with abandoned and shuttered shops, towering walls and razor wire fences meant to keep some people out and others in. In the end, it has meant neighbours separated, suspicious and in fear of one another.

As Tveit and his colleagues walked the empty Shuhada Street which divides the Palestinian Authority-controlled area of Hebron from the Israeli-controlled area, the silence of the street spoke volumes.

They walked with members of the WCC Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The ecumenical accompaniers are volunteers from WCC member churches around the world who accompany Palestinians as they encounter checkpoints, or Israelis as they confront the policies of their government bent on splitting neighbourhoods rather than linking them.

As the group moved along the street, two of the accompaniers were called back to the checkpoint to observe a situation where a Palestinian was having difficulty moving through the checkpoint. In the end the situation was resolved.

The ecumenical accompaniers are always on call. Only Saturday night, in East Jerusalem, members of the Jerusalem team were observing a demonstration of Palestinians and Israelis who were voicing their opposition to the illegal occupation of some Palestinian homes by Israeli settlers.

At a T-junction in the road and under the illumination of street lights, the protestors stood on one side, a group of settlers at one corner across from them and the police on the other corner.

Toward the end of the protest a man from the protestors’ side jumped into the street and yelled at the settlers, causing police to move quickly to intervene. Younger men came running from other directions and for a moment the potential for an escalation in violence was very real.

The ecumenical accompaniers observed and documented the unfolding events with cameras. They had seen all of this before. The situation subsided, and the groups went back to their respective corners until everyone went home later.

But along Shuhada Street in Hebron, which on maps is now a "red line", where were all of the people? Where was the neighbourhood? At one time the street was a bustling market area with traders and buyers.

"Our neighbours need us to love," Tveit said. "Religion is about loving God, loving your neighbour and loving yourself."

The sign of hope Tveit found in the story of the Good Samaritan was not any reported repentance on the part of those who passed by the wounded traveller yet refused to help him. "That would make a good story," he said.

"Our lack of ability for repentance does not limit God's ability to bring love and justice," Tveit.

The fact is, even in the face of checkpoints and the separation of neighbours, indignity and violence, "you cannot take away the truth" of God's love and justice, he said. The parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrated that a long time ago.

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(c) Mark Beach is director of communications for the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva - http://www.oikoumene.org/

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