Friday, August 20, 2010

Compassionate Listening in Bethlehem

A typical website has a bar across the top of the page with tabs you click on to find out what you need to know—often these look like the tabs on a file folder, familiar to most Americans. On the website for the Holy Land Trust, these tabs are the sections of Israel’s security wall. Take a look:

It’s really quite creative and it illustrates a Palestinian attitude toward the wall, an attitude we found everywhere we went in the West Bank. It seems to be a fundamental tenet of Palestinian nonviolence that compells the people to transform the wall—from prison to liberation for the Palestinian people.

Returning from my trip to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening Project in June, I found it hard not to be depressed about the possibilities for peace and justice for the Palestinian people. It’s been difficult to write about the experiences because, although we met well-meaning Israelis and hopeful, energetic Palestinians getting to know one another throughout Israel and the West Bank, the progress toward change in the daily lives of Palestinians is very slow. In the five years I have been visiting the area, I have seen only increasing restrictions on travel. While peace talks meander on, the daily lives of Palestinians are filled with problems getting permits, humiliation at the checkpoints, and the stress of dealing with Israeli soldiers who are still uprooting olive trees for the building of the wall today. For example, every activity dealing with the world outside Palestine requires an Israeli permit because, although the Palestinian Authority has nominal control in metropolitan areas like Bethlehem, Israel controls its borders and everything that comes in or goes out.(This is also the problem in Gaza.)

The Palestinians we met—in Hebron, Al-Aroub refugee camp, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and everywhere—do not let checkpoint humiliation and fear control their lives. They live as if there is a future of peace and justice. They live their lives as if one day there will be justice for them. They live their lives as if the world will one day turn their mourning into laughter.

And they live each day busily turning their sorrow into a brighter future for their people, especially the young people. So, they form oganizations like the Holy Land Trust (and the Diyar Consortium of the Lutherans in Bethlehem) to make that future a reality. Photo is Sami Awad, Executive Director of the Holy Land Trust, speaking to our delegation.

Over the past five years, I have watched Bethlehem become a walled enclave. In 2005, only small sections of the wall had been completed. One afternoon we walked through a gap in the wall, over a small hill, and caught the bus to Jerusalem without ever encountering a soldier. If we tried that in June, we would have put our lives in danger. The settlements, like Gilo and Har Homa, that were built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on lands that were taken from Palestinian olive growers, now demand security—they fear the people whose land they have stolen.

If they met these Palestinians, they would learn that most Palestinians bear them no ill will. The Palestinians we met simply want an end to the confiscation of land and the building of the wall. They want Israeli troops out of the West Bank and Gaza and they want to live without fear that soldiers will shoot them for doing ????? (whatever—they never know) at the checkpoint. They want to live in a country where Israel does not control everything they do. Rafat, who spoke to us at the Holy Land Trust said something we heard over and over again from Palestinians everywhere: “Everyone is welcome here, but everyone must have equal rights. Face to face encounter is what will lead to peace.” He told us he was happy to have the settlers stay. The Palestinians I have met are amazing in their hospitality—they welcome even the people who oppress them, certain that if they get to know one another, life will be better.

This is a snapshot of the hope of the gospel—the good news that Jesus brought to this land two millenia ago is still being preached today.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Building a Mosque is Good for America

This article was sent to me by Ellen Clark Greene, one of the people on our Compassionate Listening delegation in May (view her blog: ). The piece below was written for the Huffington Post by Dean Obeidallah, a comedian and friend of hers.

My travels to Israel and Palestine have made me more aware of injustice in our own communities – the building of the mosque in Manhattan exposes American ignorance about Islam and our passion for rushing to condemn things we don’t understand. This political trend is, quite frankly, frightening. The post below expresses what I'd like to hear President Obama and our other elected officials say this to the American people – to call us back to our founding roots. Since this is not likely, please forward this to everyone you know so that we can safeguard the basic principle upon which the United States was founded.

Where can the Muslim community center be built in NYC?

To me, the answer is the same as if you asked me where a church, a synagogue, a Sikh temple or any place of worship in the US can be built. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss: I say you can build it here or there, by a house or a mouse, in Tribeca by Robert DeNiro or further down by Ground Zero. It's that simple.

It's alarming and disheartening to see the angry, hate-filled rhetoric by some in response to the building of the Muslim community center. Some people truly appear to hate Muslims more than they love the ideals of our country.

I don't subscribe to the view that everyone who is opposing the Muslim community center is a bigot. But to those who really have no issues with Muslims but simply object to its proposed location, I say: You might want to take a quick look to your left and right; I'm going to bet that at least one of the people protesting alongside you is a bigot, such as the "Christian" Pastor from Florida who is threatening to burn Korans on September 11 -- the way the Nazis burned Torahs -- and those who are protesting mosques being built in other parts of the country hundreds of miles from Ground Zero and threatening to release pigs on the property to keep the Muslims away. These aren't people I really want to hang with.

So here are my simple responses to the main arguments I have heard in my effort to balance the avalanche of hate coming from the other side:

1. Should a sushi restaurant be allowed to open near Pearl Harbor? It's important to emphasize that the Founding Fathers of America did not flee England to the New World because they wanted to make California rolls or sashimi. It was for freedom of religion. You can't compare the sacred right of freedom of religion with the right to sell raw fish.

2. The location is the issue. This is frankly the toughest one. I understand fully the visceral opposition by some to the location. I stood about 20 blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and watched the towers crumble before my eyes. I lived in Manhattan then and continue to live there today. But let's also keep in mind that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who will be leading the Muslim community center, is the long-time leader of a mosque that is located 12 blocks from Ground Zero and has been there since 1983. That is where his congregation is located. Should he have to move his congregation because terrorists happen to share the same religion? And how far is "enough" of a move: Is six blocks okay? Twenty blocks? Two miles? And who decides how far is enough: Sarah Palin? Newt Gingrich? Do any of you trust these people to decide the scope of our fundamental Constitutional rights? Can we allow the very right that inspired the creation of our nation to be decided by a popularity contest? If that were the case, do you think in certain parts of the South they would have agreed to allow synagogues or churches that serve African-American communities to be built?

3. American Muslims should not build a Muslim center near Ground Zero because the twenty 9/11 terrorists were Muslim. This is like saying that because a handful of Catholic priests molested young boys, Catholic Churches should not be allowed to be built near elementary schools. Or because Bernie Madoff and several others in the recent Wall Street scandals were Jewish, no synagogues can be built near Wall Street. I know these men didn't kill people, but they destroyed many, many lives; however, we would never punish everyone in their religion because of the sins of a few. Even more importantly, the people who are building this mosque and will worship in it will be American Muslims, not members of Al Qaeda.

4. This is a "victory mosque" because Muslims build mosques to symbolize military victories. There are approximately 1900 mosques in the US already. Somebody please list the military victories against America that each of these mosques represents. Seriously, I'm all ears.

5. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who will be leading this mosque, is connected to terrorist activity. He has been the imam of a mosque located 12 blocks from Ground Zero for 27 years. If he had been involved in terrorist activity, I think by now he would have been arrested. In fact, he has publicly condemned terrorism, worked to build bridges between the US and Muslim world, and spearheaded extensive Interfaith work bringing people of different religions together to foster understanding. But if you have any evidence whatsoever that he is involved with terrorism -- not "he likes falafel and terrorists like falafel" but credible evidence -- I implore you to turn it over to the FBI or US Attorney's Office. If you don't, then please stop the character assassinations and blood libel against him.

6. The Mosque will encourage terrorism. Actually, I believe strongly that the opposite is true. As a comedian, I have performed in the Middle East frequently over the past few years. There are many there who truly believed that during President Bush's term the US was waging a war against all Muslims, not just terrorists. One of the best arguments we had against this assertion was to say look how the American Muslims are treated -- they are free to worship and have the same rights as people from any other religion. Banning this Muslim community center will change that forever and, to be brutally honest, will be used as a tool to recruit terrorists against us by simply saying, "Look how America treats their Muslims!"
So why is the Mosque good for America?

Allowing the Muslim community center to be built where it is being proposed represents the best of America, the idea that the United States is a special place in the world, a beacon of fairness that welcomes and protects the rights of all its people. Too many have sacrificed their lives for these sacred rights to say that certain Americans should not enjoy them simply because of their religion.

As our Declaration of Independence famously states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and it is my belief that they should be treated equally, as well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Israel--"creating forests"

In the summer Gale and I try to get away for trips to our Rocky Mountains to enjoy the pine forests—hiking, biking, or just sitting by a lake. So how could anyone find fault with Israel for creating forests?

The Jewish National Fund calling itself “a global environmental leader,” has been creating forests in Israel for 107 years. They have planted 240 million trees and created more than 1000 parks. According to their website (, they are “bringing life to the Negev Desert.”

A story written by Max Blumenthal tells us about the most recent forestation effort ( ):

“On July 26, Israeli police demolished 45 buildings in the unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Arakib, razing the entire village to the ground to make way for a Jewish National Fund forest. The destruction was part of a larger project to force the Bedouin community of the Negev away from their ancestral lands and into seven Indian reservation-style communities the Israeli government has constructed for them. The land will then be open for Jewish settlers, including young couples in the army and those who may someday be evacuated from the West Bank after a peace treaty is signed. For now, the Israeli government intends to uproot as many villages as possible and erase them from the map by establishing “facts on the ground” in the form of JNF forests. (See video of of al-Arakib’s demolition here).

One of the most troubling aspects of the destruction of al-Arakib was a report by CNN that the hundreds of Israeli riot police who stormed the village were accompanied by “busloads of cheering civilians.” Who were these civilians and why didn’t CNN or any outlet investigate further?

I traveled to al-Arakib yesterday with a delegation from Ta’ayush, an Israeli group that promotes a joint Arab-Jewish struggle against the occupation. The activists spent the day preparing games and activities for the village’s traumatized children, helping the villagers replace their uprooted olive groves, and assisting in the reconstruction of their demolished homes. In a massive makeshift tent where many of al-Arakib’s residents now sleep, I interviewed village leaders about the identity of the cheering civilians. Each one confirmed the presence of the civilians, describing how they celebrated the demolitions. As I compiled details, the story grew increasingly horrific. After interviewing more than a half dozen elders of the village, I was able to finally identify the civilians in question. What I discovered was more disturbing than I had imagined.

Arab Negev News publisher Ata Abu Madyam supplied me with a series of photos he took of the civilians in action. They depicted Israeli high school students who appeared to have volunteered as members of the Israeli police civilian guard (I am working on identifying some participants by name). Prior to the demolitions, the student volunteers were sent into the villagers’ homes to extract their furniture and belongings. A number of villagers including Abu Madyam told me the volunteers smashed windows and mirrors in their homes and defaced family photographs with crude drawings. Then they lounged around on the furniture of al-Arakib residents in plain site of the owners. Finally, according to Abu Matyam, the volunteers celebrated while bulldozers destroyed the homes.”

Read more:

If you have ever doubted that Israel is engaging in ethnic cleansing, please read more and watch the video:

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Israel May Drag U.S. into Another War

This is significant and timely. Be sure to read the “analysis” (click on the word) --it is an interesting analysis of the problems inherent in US and Israel policy and inaction with regard to the rights of Palestinians.

Also of interest is a video (referred to in the analysis) of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking with an Israeli family, bragging about how he is manipulating and taking advantage of US aid. It’s very disturbing. If you have not seen it on YouTube yet, it is well worth watching. This article from Ma’an News Agency includes both the video and a transcript of what Netanyahu is saying:

From the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, forwarding the information from the Council for the National Interest Foundation-----
Dear Friends,
We have disturbing and urgent news. Our new executive director, Philip Giraldi, and other former U.S. intelligence officers have just published an extremely important analysis warning that Israel may plan to attack Iran as early as this month (full-length article below).
They detail the evidence for this possibility and warn that such an action would quite likely drag the United States into yet another tragic, needless, and disastrous quagmire. It would be a war that Israel would begin and the United States would have to finish.

Fortunately, they also describe actions that President Obama could take to prevent this.

1. We urge you to circulate this information widely.

2. Also, please contact the White House and your Congressional representatives to tell them that you do not want another costly and profoundly tragic war. Explain that you desire that the U.S. issue a clear demand that Israel NOT attack Iran and instead allow the various excellent diplomatic initiatives to defuse the situation to move forward.

Our radio program “CNI: Jerusalem Calling” will discuss this topic TODAY at noon eastern time. CNI President Alison Weir will be the host with Executive Director Philip Giraldi and CIA intelligence officer Raymond McGovern as the guests. Mr. McGovern served as an intelligence officer in the CIA for almost thirty years and prepared the President’s Daily Brief during both the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration. He has also published a number of articles and is one of the founding members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of former and current officials in the intelligence community that got together in 2003 to protest the use of faulty intelligence leading up to the Iraq War.

To listen: go to the show’s homepage and click on the “Listen Live” button for Studio A, at the top left.

Below is the article, by Ray McGovern:
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
SUBJECT: War With Iran

We write to alert you to the likelihood that Israel will attack Iran as early as this month. This would likely lead to a wider war. Israel’s leaders would calculate that once the battle is joined, it will be politically untenable for you to give anything less than unstinting support to Israel, no matter how the war started, and that U.S. troops and weaponry would flow freely. Wider war could eventually result in destruction of the state of Israel. This can be stopped, but only if you move quickly to preempt an Israeli attack by publicly condemning such a move before it happens.

We believe that comments by senior American officials, you included, reflect misplaced trust in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Actually, the phrasing itself can be revealing, as when CIA Director Panetta implied cavalierly that Washington leaves it up to the Israelis to decide whether and when to attack Iran, and how much “room” to give to the diplomatic effort. On June 27, Panetta casually told ABC’s Jake Tapper, “I think they are willing to give us the the room to be able to try to change Iran diplomatically … as opposed to changing them militarily.”

Similarly, the tone you struck referring to Netanyahu and yourself in your July 7 interview with Israeli TV was distinctly out of tune with decades of unfortunate history with Israeli leaders. “Neither of us try to surprise each other,” you said, “and that approach is one that I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to.” You may wish to ask Vice President Biden to remind you of the kind of surprises he has encountered in Israel.

Blindsiding has long been an arrow in Israel’s quiver. During the emerging Middle East crisis in the spring of 1967, some of us witnessed closely a flood of Israeli surprises and deception, as Netanyahu’s predecessors feigned fear of an imminent Arab attack as justification for starting a war to seize and occupy Arab territories. We had long since concluded that Israel had been exaggerating the Arab “threat” – well before 1982 when former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin publicly confessed: (read more.....)