Volume 5 Number 2
by Kent Annan
Jesus was born in occupied Bethlehem and was for some time, with his parents, a refugee in Egypt. Flash forward two thousand years: Jesus’ native land is still a place of refugees and military struggle. Two Princeton M.Div. students, Craig Hunter and Gloria Yi, recently worked among Palestinians in Israel on their field education internship assignments. They made friends, learned more about the political situation, and felt the violence rumbling through that contentious land.
While he has not forgotten the horrors Jews have suffered, Hunter’s perspective widened while living and working in Bethlehem for ten months. He now believes part of his life’s work should be advocating for Palestinians “under Israeli oppression.” He uses explosive terms like “slow-motion ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” to describe the current situation that he believes was born from the suffering of Jews during and before World War II.
What caused the change? “It was hearing the stories of Palestinians,” he says. “The shock is seeing the abandoned villages, going to clinics and hearing the stories of what happens in the West Bank, learning more history, talking with some Israelis who are against the current treatment of Palestinians, spending time with a Palestinian coworker who’s struggling to keep his land from being confiscated by the Israelis.”
Hunter worked at the International Center of Bethlehem, a Palestinian cultural renewal center. He helped to coordinate groups of Western Christians who were visiting to learn more about the Palestinian situation, and in the process learned much about the local political landscape. He also taught English to Christian and Muslim Palestinians, finding himself sympathizing with their plight, if not their affection for Michael Jackson’s music.
The intense year was not without beauty. Bethlehem was blanketed in snow for Christmas. During Holy Week, Hunter attended many worship services in Jerusalem—including one on Maundy Thursday in the Church of All Nations that was held in half a dozen languages. He spent Good Friday at a service in Gethsemane and then walking the Way of the Cross, the path commemorating Christ’s way to his crucifixion. On Easter morning, he said of his attending as many services as he could squeeze in, “You want to drink it up.” He went to the Mount of Olives at sunrise and to the Garden Tomb, perhaps where they laid Jesus’ body, for a service. Celebrating the resurrection was “a thrill, one of the unbelievable joys of being there…. I needed that, because it was a difficult place to be.”
Not long after Hunter left, Gloria Yi found herself north of Jerusalem in Ramallah, a Palestinian city that “Arafat uses as a kind of a capital.” She had wanted to go to India, but ended up in Israel. She wanted a place where different religions intermingled. She got that. Plus a war zone.
In October, two Israeli soldiers were beaten to death in a Palestinian police station less than a block from where she lived and worked—a stomach-wrenching scene caught on video that made the evening news and headlines around the world. Still in some disbelief three weeks after being evacuated from Ramallah to Jerusalem to Cyprus to the United States, she drew a diagram on a scrap of paper to show how close the police station was to where she worked and lived. When the Israelis rocketed the police station and targets nearby, the house she was in shook.
“I was so cold,” she remembers. “It was about seventy degrees Fahrenheit, but I was shivering with fear.” A sweater and jacket hadn’t helped.
For two months Yi had been teaching high school history and English at the Quaker school in Ramallah. Though only there a relatively brief time, she felt strong bonds with colleagues, neighbors, and students.
On what turned out to be her last day in Ramallah, she told her thirty high school seniors to stay focused on their lesson about the Russian Revolution while things outside were coming to a boiling point. “We were taking a quiz on the Bolsheviks while this [mob violence] was happening,” she says, laughing at the absurdity of it. Gunshots, which were frequent at night but unexpected during the day, were punctuating the air. Class ended, students were dismissed, and she began grading the quiz. Teachers and students started rushing through the halls to the basement shelter. She asked why. “Two Israeli soldiers were killed, ” they said hurriedly. Yi remembers, laughing at her own naivete, “I was thinking, ‘Well?’ By this time, like a hundred people had been killed, most of them Palestinians. Then they started saying, ‘Israel’s going to retaliate!’”
Israel did retaliate. As explosions rocked, Yi and two colleagues huddled in the school director’s house. They worked the phones, trying to gather information and figure out what to do. Yi called her brother in California and told him what was happening, told him that she loved him and their parents, told him to pray. She prayed a verse from Isaiah over and over—“No weapon formed against you will prosper”—and felt some peace.
After two weeks, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s personnel decided it was unsafe for Yi to return to Israel, so she returned to the U.S. On arriving home, she found the American media’s perspective hard to swallow.
“It’s hard to read that ‘Israel is restraining from using full force’ when Palestinians are being killed in their homes,” she says. “I have a hard time with U.S. policy, that we don’t condemn some of Israel’s actions. I have a hard time watching CNN or reading Newsweek because I think they’re so biased. This is part of why my Palestinian students felt so frustrated, so much hatred, because of the distortion of what’s happening.”
On one occasion an open assembly at the school turned into a bashing of American policy that included seventh graders talking about suicide-bombers. Yi, the only American in attendance, felt like she had to say something. So nervously she walked up to the mike and did the only thing she thought she could: apologize. “I apologize that we’ve turned a blind eye to the injustices, that American-made bullets are killing you,” she said. Some seemed grateful for her words. But not all. After Yi spoke for a few minutes, three teenage girls rose to say that Yi didn’t understand the Palestinian struggle, the need to fight, and that they couldn’t forgive or forget.
In a place full of too much holiness and too much horror and too much history and no clear way forward, both Hunter and Yi look back to one of Bethlehem’s sons for hope.
“I struggle with hope, with trying to have hope and sometimes failing, with letting Christ be my hope,” says Hunter as he considers how Jesus relates to the current plight of Palestinians. “This relates to the situation because, well, look at the utter waste of Christ’s life. Look at the potential Christ had, and it just came to virtually nothing. And then it was over. But then the resurrection came out of this. Out of the disaster of Christ’s life came something so unbelievably, incredibly, impossibly good! This hope speaks to the situations of the Palestinians and of us.”
“I don’t have dark, gloomy questions in the midst of the suffering,” says Yi. “I think God is there. I think God cries. I think the mystery and revelation of Christ is in the life, death, and resurrection. I have to believe in the hope of the resurrection. I’m sitting here right now in despair…but I refuse to lose hope. And I want to give hope to my friends, to the Palestinians.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary