It was only half-eight in the morning, but it was already too warm for comfort. I could feel the acrid salty heat rising from the tarmac as I headed up the hill. The chapel was going to feel like an oven. Once again I caught myself fantasising about air conditioning, which not many people have in Palestine. Just imagine walking into a building and being met by a beautiful blast of cold air, and getting some iced grapefruit juice, and…
The order was issued in an American accent and preceded by an earsplitting whistle. I didn’t stop for the whistle. I never do. If people want to talk to me, they can start by addressing me as though I’m a person too and not an errant sheepdog who needs to be brought to heel. At “Stop!” I reluctantly obeyed. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast yet, and you don’t pick fights with M16-wielding men without at least having had a cup of tea beforehand.
He was not a soldier, but a civilian employee from the company that has been contracted to manage this particular checkpoint. (Military occupation is big business.) The sun glinted on his dark glasses and the barrel of his rifle. Behind him was a female guard who was gazing up at him adoringly from beneath her baseball cap. I know that look, and it’s never pretty. The way some guys start parading around the checkpoint like peacocks in flak jackets if there happens to be a female colleague anywhere in the vicinity is like something out of a David Attenborough zoological documentary on mating rituals. And what better way to demonstrate power, manliness, and general desirability than by harassing the odd passer-by? Frankly I don’t know how the female soldiers and guards manage to keep their legs together.
“I don’t want to go through the machsom,” I called out wearily, resigning myself to the game. I tried to step forward so that I could talk to him in my normal voice, but he gave another shrill blast of the whistle (ow) and held up the palm of his hand.
“Where are you going?”
“To church.” I pointed at the road that sloped off to my right, skirting the separation wall. The guard turned away and said something to his colleague. I took this as permission to move. I was wrong. The resulting whistle was loud enough to make my heart jump skittishly. “Wait!”
I waited. It was hot. My glasses were slowly sliding down the bridge of my nose. The guards talked with one another. Occasionally they glanced over at me, smiling. The clock edged forward. Mass would be beginning any moment now in the quiet little monastery that lay not half a minute away. The liturgy there is over a thousand years old, celebrated in antiquated and beautiful Arabic. The chant is not the exquisite thing that I have heard in other Eastern Catholic services, rich and subtle as butterfly wings; it’s cracked and a bit erratic because singing is not the congregation’s strong suit. The nuns are the only people with real mastery over the music. But it is lovely in its own way. Melvina sits on my left, and hearing her old voice quaver as she follows the chant always makes me smile. She’s been around for nearly ninety years. There’s been a lot of music in that life, and you can hear it in her voice, even though she may not be a technically proficient singer any more. The success with which we do things matters far less than the love that we put into them.
Standing there by the roadside, it occurred to me that I wasn’t putting much love into this wait. My brain had moved on from AC units and was now considering just how satisfying it would be to take my nice sturdy hardback Bible and deck the checkpoint guard with it. I had to remind myself that he earns a salary for this. Taking part in the systematic oppression of Palestinians is how he gets his groceries, pays his rent, buys birthday presents for his mum. The occupation that regulates every aspect of Palestinian daily life has poisoned his own. It was hard to remember that and not pity him, not with the memories that the idea evoked.
My dad began his career in the Royal Air Force and concluded it with BAE Systems, the world’s second-biggest arms company. As a child, I didn’t give much thought to the kind of work that my dad did. I just knew that it involved making planes. One of my earliest memories is of being taken to the factory to see the planes being built. I was three or four at the time. Ten years later, as a teenager at boarding school (my fees paid by BAE), I opened the church newsletter and read that there was going to be a ‘die-in’ protest outside a major BAE base. Die-in protest, what was that, why, what did they mean? On the phone home that night, agitated, I asked my dad about BAE’s work. Where did the planes go? Who was buying them? What were they being used for? Dad spoke firmly. “Look, we can’t sell to any country without the government’s permission. BAE can’t be held responsible for everything. It’s decided at a much higher level.”
This was no comfort, as I had already realised that the government might not be the most reliable moral authority in the world. I was frightened enough to do some research of my own. Alone in the school library, late at night, I discovered the price of my education – and who was paying it. Teenagers my age in East Timor.
My dad is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. When I was five years old, and crying because I hadn’t been invited to a birthday party (these things matter a lot when you’re five), he took me to feed the horses near the canal because he knew how much I loved the horses. And he let me ride the whole way on his shoulders, even up the big hill. Then there were all the times I saw him buy the Big Issue magazine from the homeless street vendors with a £5 note and say, “Keep the change.” Seven-year-old me had little concept of the price of things, and when I worked out that the Big Issue didn’t cost that much I concluded that telling people to keep the change must just be something everybody did. I remember Dad crawling out of bed when he had a bad fever to try and help twelve-year-old me through the impossible algebra homework that had reduced me to tears. And the time he confiscated a blinded and half-dead kitten from a group of boys who were kicking it about like a football and painstakingly nursed it back to life. Nelson followed him everywhere after that. (Literally – he would sit outside the toilet and wait for Dad to emerge, and when Dad drove the car Nelson would ride contentedly on his shoulder.)
Now I was having to learn that ordinary well-intentioned people often have rotten girders propping up our ordinary well-intentioned lives, girders that we can’t see and don’t even think about until they crack.
On Monday a motion that would have compelled the United Methodist Church to divest from three companies that profit from the Israeli occupation – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola – was raised at its General Conference. Most of the conference attendees will never have had to see what it is that the UMC is profiting from through its investments in these three. But I have.
Motorola works closely with the Israeli army, and its exploitation of the Palestinians becomes apparent the moment you enter the occupied West Bank village of Nabi Samwil. The village’s most prominent features are the telecommunications masts that tower from its centre. Some masts have even been placed on the roof of a family home, which means that this house is the only structure in the village not to face an imminent demolition threat. But although the house is safe for now, its occupants may not be. Health and safety regulations elsewhere prohibit mobile masts from being erected too close to people’s houses, due to the radiation risks. (In Europe and the USA mobile companies are obliged to abide by a 500 metre exclusion zone.) Motorola sees no reason to implement such a safety policy in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli army offers good business. Motorola simply takes advantage of it.
The children of Nabi Samwil have been waging a war against the army for the right to have a toilet attached to their overcrowded one-room primary school. (The villagers are forbidden to expand the school.) Each time the toilet is constructed, the army declares it to be illegal and brings in the bulldozers – supplied by Caterpillar.
My friend Kholood is a youth worker from Nazareth. She does rehabilitation work with troubled children and adolescents. One little girl whom she works with has endured so many house demolitions and developed such severe anxiety that she has actually become afraid of the colour yellow. The United Methodist Church is heavily invested in that colour, and on Monday the conference voted – by an overwhelming majority – not to divest from it.
During the last demolition suffered by my friends in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Khair, I was in England. I came online one night to find myself being confronted with a familiar face.
“They are brothers of Abraham, like us,” this man told me once, gesturing to the neighbouring settlement of Karmel. “We should share.” He told me this not two weeks after Karmel settlers had physically assaulted two peace activists from Operation Dove. Not two months after a project to provide the villagers with better sanitation had to be scrapped because the settlers reported the building of illegal toilet facilities to the army. He radiates gentleness and dignity. As the oldest resident of the village, he is accorded special respect – I only know him as Hajj, an honorific title for an elderly man. Usually he is impeccably neat, with his crisp white scarf folded over his head. Seeing him like that, his scarf slipping off as a soldier restrained him and his house was torn down, was a bitter reminder of what humiliation looks like. I cried then, and my eyes are stinging slightly now at the memories I have from that place.
Mother Teresa once said with brilliant clarity, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” That old Bedouin Muslim knows it. This is the only investment that every follower of Jesus should fight to safeguard at all costs – the love we bear for one another. Christ had something to say about that. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The stark implication of this message is spelled out in 1 John 4: “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Through its decision not to divest from three extremely troubling companies, the voting body of the United Methodist Church valued financial pragmatism over love beyond price. There must surely have been a political undercurrent, too. The climate in the USA is overwhelmingly supportive of Israeli policy, and people who have endorsed the 2005 Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) have often found themselves being unfairly branded as anti-Semitic. Given Christianity’s long and shadowy history with anti-Semitism, there are people who are prepared to do almost anything to avoid having that label pinned on them, even if it means suppressing conscience. There is also a desire to keep in with the political mainstream. Public image becomes an idol, and desire to look right triumphs over the desire to act right.
Famished and weakened after forty days of fasting, Jesus encountered the tempter. Here he taught Christians exactly how we should respond to the allure of power, wealth, substantial business investments that pay various salaries, and public opinion polls: “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ And Jesus said, ‘
I will convene a meeting of the disciples, and raise this motion at our annual conference, and we will debate carefully the ethics of this investment. Fuck off.’”
“OK, you can go,” the checkpoint guard told me at last, lolling against the separation wall. As I hurried off as fast as I could without breaking into a sprint, he hollered after me, “Smile!” I resisted the urge to turn round and tell him exactly where to get off. I was already late for Mass, and I wanted to arrive in a calm sort of state, preferably without getting arrested on the way.
Like the thief I acknowledge You:
remember me, O Lord;
remember me, O Holy One;
remember me, O my God,
when You come into your kingdom.
I closed my eyes as the congregation chanted this prayer of yearning. It did not take long for my irritation to dissipate, perhaps because the incense clouds and the waxy heat from the candles have such a soporific effect that it is impossible to feel anything (except maybe slightly stoned). I was able to pray for our checkpoint guards. However, my sharp-eyed neighbours must have noticed something was wrong. After the Mass was over, when we were all milling around in the courtyard, Melvina and Mary approached me. “Vicky, why did you come so late? You are not late normally.”
“The guards wouldn’t let me walk by,” I explained, and I gave them a brief outline of the morning’s events. The two grandmothers tutted. Mary’s face became as dour-looking as the segregation wall. “I will do something about this man.”
“What?” I said nervously, wondering why I can never learn to keep my mouth shut.
She drew herself up to her full glorious height of four feet two inches. “When we walk past, I will look at him!”
“And I will look at him too!” affirmed Melvina.
“And I as well!” cried out another ancient resident of the neighbourhood, hobbling over with her cane. In the end we assembled a platoon of about ten local women who set out on this grim mission. When we got to the checkpoint, it was all eyes right, and the guards got blasted out of existence with the ferocity of the collective stare. The Israeli populace must feel deeply reassured that they have got an eight-metre high concrete barrier to protect themselves from the immensity of this threat. Mary and Co. can stare at it all they like and it won’t fall. It’s a strong wall – and sadly its greatest strength lies not in its size or its scale or in the weaponry of the soldiers who man it, but in the indifference (and perhaps sheer cowardice) of good people who have looked, but chosen to do nothing.
Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth
“This document is the Christian Palestinians’ word to the world about what is happening in Palestine…Our word is a cry of hope, with love, prayer and faith in God. We address it first of all to ourselves and then to all the churches and Christians in the world, asking them to stand against injustice and apartheid, urging them to work for a just peace in our region, calling on them to revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land.”
The BIG Campaign
Information on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign, and how to participate.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu on justice for Palestine
A leading Christian figure in the South African fight against apartheid has written a powerful and thoughtful piece in support of BDS in the Palestinian context.
Prayers for peace on earth
A beautiful peace novena put together by a community of Catholic priests, featuring prayers and meditations from many different faith traditions.