In January 2010, Dr. Ellen Charry, PTS professor of historical and systematic theology, taught a travel course titled “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Israel.” The course took students to Tantur Ecumenical Institute outside of Jerusalem to explore these three major faiths in the context of the Middle East.
Charry’s goal for the course was to introduce her seventeen students to both the religious and political dimensions of the Middle East conflict. The students visited both ancient and modern sites sacred to the three Abrahamic traditions as they currently exist in the land.
Brenna Nickel, one of the students who took the course and now a senior, wrote these four monologues in response to the trip, and in fulfillment of a requirement for the course “War and the Christian Conscience” taught by Dr. John Bowlin.
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I can’t sleep tonight. There are so many thoughts rushing through my brain. The small space I share with my younger sisters and mother is quiet, still. Such a contrast to what is going on inside my head.
Yesterday there was a raid in our village, Dheisheh. The soldiers came in with their guns, yelling in Hebrew. I don’t understand it well. My friend said they suspected some of us men of plotting something. So they turned off the water for a day, and now we have a curfew. No one is allowed out of their houses after dark.
The worst thing is that the UN does nothing. They stand by and watch. Every year they seem to get weaker and weaker, doing less and less about the schools in the village and the medical care. It is almost impossible to see a doctor. There are only a few for the thousands of us who live here.
In our room, which is separated only by a sheet hanging in the middle of the room so I can have a bit of privacy, I hear the regular, deep breathing of my family sleeping.
I am the only man in the family now since my father was killed three years ago. He tried to stand up to an Israeli soldier who was bullying my mother and was shot. Then he died in a hospital alone. They would not let us out to see him. I feel like he would be so disappointed in me because I cannot take care of my mother and sisters. It is my job now, and I am failing. Just because I am young and a man, I cannot get a job permit. The wall has made it harder and harder to find work outside of the West Bank, but so many shops and businesses inside have been closed because of the settlers.
Luckily, my mother is good at stitching. She makes little bracelets and things for American tourists who visit the village and feel bad for us and then forget about us. That little bit of money is our only income. I help with my sisters, and go to the store for my mother, but it is time for me to have a real man’s job. I am twenty years old and I am supposed to be going out and honoring my family by working hard and earning a regular income.
Since yesterday, some of my friends have actually begun planning something. They say, “If they think we are terrorists, we might as well be terrorists. Being peaceful has gotten us nowhere.” Aziz, my best friend, has invited me to join them, but I’m not sure what to do. He won’t give me the full details of the plan until he knows I’m fully committed.
When I remember what has happened to us, I think, why not? My grandparents’ land was stolen from them in 1967. They were forced to come here to Dheisheh, and everyone thought it would be only temporary. They thought they would at least get their land back soon—even if their home was demolished by Israeli tanks. Then my father was born, he married my mother, and here we are forty years later. Every year the population grows, but the space we’re in stays the same. The old, stark buildings stay the same. The sewage system stays the same. The whole world looks the other way.
I think, if I could do something brave, I might bring honor to my family. They would paint my face on our house. The village would remember me as a courageous man who stood up to the dirty Israelis instead of a boy who did nothing. But how will Aziz and the others get any materials? Any weapons? All we have are rocks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they took those away from us soon. Maybe if we killed some of their children, fathers, and mothers, then they would finally recognize us as a nation and see us as humans instead of Arab animals they can keep locked up and caged in.
But then, I wonder what my mother and sisters would do if I got killed.
There is this other thing I heard about. My neighbor who lost a brother in a conflict ten years ago is in a group called The Parents Circle. They tell their stories to school children with Israelis who have lost family members. They try to make peace. But I don’t know how my neighbor can sit in a room with an Israeli whose son might have killed his brother! How does he resist killing him? How does he not let the anger take over?
I wonder what my father would do. He always tried to keep his head down and go about his business without bothering anybody. He was so sure that peace would come eventually. Just surviving is resisting, he said. But that didn’t help us or him because he didn’t survive.
Maybe tomorrow I will talk to Aziz.
This morning, I wake at 3:30 a.m. It is cold and dark. I try not to wake my husband as I slip on my sweater and move into the kitchen. There is a bowl of oranges on the counter. I drop one into my bag as I walk out the front door. This morning I am lucky. My younger brother who owns a taxi is willing to drive me to the checkpoint. I am grateful for the extra half hour of sleep this gesture has given me.
He pulls up to my gate. I get in the car. His taxi smells of coffee and cardamom. As he hands me a cup, I notice he looks tired, even more tired than myself. “Did you sleep at all last night?” I ask. He sighs. “No, the baby was up every hour or so.” I smile—partly because I remember him saying how easy he thought it would be to have a baby, and partly because I know his pain. It’s been ten years since we had a baby in the house, but I remember those days as if no time has passed. He adds, “So really it was nothing to pick you up since I was already awake.”
I strangely like Bethlehem at this time of morning. It is dark and quiet and all the stores are closed up, waiting for the new day. A few people are out, probably walking to the checkpoint, but I imagine most are sleeping warmly in their beds dreaming of days from long ago. Somehow, even the graffiti looks more serene with just the headlights shining on it.
After about ten minutes of driving down the hilly, winding streets we pull up to the checkpoint, with the great wall standing ominously in front of us. I get out of the taxi and thank my brother. “We will come over tonight. I have clothes for the baby.” He nods. I close the door and join the line.
The Israeli authorities have recently decided that they will open the checkpoint a half an hour earlier to help those of us with early morning jobs get to work on time. I’m not sure if it has helped since at 4:00 in the morning there are already several hundred people standing in line in front of me.
As I join the line at the bottom of the ramp, I feel in my bag for my work papers. I have already done this twice this morning—once at home and once in the cab, but I am terrified of not having them. One morning a few months ago, I had gotten all the way to the guards in the booths that look at our work permits and panicked when I realized I did not have my papers. I turned my bag inside out and yelled to those behind me, “Does anyone see my work papers? I must have dropped them!” Those behind me vaguely looked at the floor around them, but mostly they looked annoyed with me. Meanwhile, the guard in the booth began yelling at me in Hebrew over the speaker.
At that moment, I remembered that I had taken my work permit out of my bag the night before to show my son, who was applying for one, and realized I must have left it on the table.
Then, the young female guard came out of her booth and pulled me to the side. For a moment, I was relieved. I could explain what had happened; surely she would understand. But she didn’t. She looked at me like I was a criminal, though she had seen me at the checkpoint every day for a month. For a brief second, I was outside of myself, realizing the absurdity of the situation. In another world, this girl could be my daughter, and here she was with a gun across her chest, yelling at me because I had forgotten a silly piece of paper that said I was allowed to work in a kitchen.
Those going by looked at me with curiosity. What had I done that would make me late for work or possibly lose my job? They wanted to avoid that mistake in the future. When I saw someone I knew go by, I tried to make eye contact with her, hoping she would help me explain to the guard what happened, but she calmly presented her papers and kept walking without meeting my gaze.
I did not make it through the checkpoint that day. I was sent home. I called the church I worked at when I got home to explain what had happened. The minister was very understanding. The staff at the church knows that any given day we who are coming from the West Bank could be sent home. They are good people there who seek out Palestinian Christians like me to cook for their visiting guests. This is their way of working for peace, and trying to give opportunities to the Palestinians.
But despite my good relationship with the church, I was ashamed that I had forgotten my documents, ashamed that I had begun crying in front of people that knew me, ashamed that the 19-year-old girl looked at me like I was up to something, trying to hide something. I was determined to not let that happen again.
After an hour of standing in line, the sun starts to come up, a welcome relief to combat the cold air. I shift from one foot to the other trying to keep warm. I look at the graffiti on the wall to my left. Some of it is in Arabic, but most is in English. I wonder who it is written for. The biggest writing says, “Bridges not Walls.” Every day I read this, and every day I continue to line up along the wall.
I am inside the checkpoint now, preparing to put my bag through the X-ray machine, but someone ahead of me has been stopped. Now there will be a delay. The Israeli guard takes the woman’s small bag and opens it. He pulls out each item one by one, inspecting it as if it may explode. An orange, glasses, a book, an umbrella. It seems that the umbrella was the troubling item. She looks relieved as he hands the items back to her and she replaces them hastily in her bag. The line keeps moving.
Next I wait at the booths, my documents ready in my hand. On one of the booths is a poster. It shows a family running and laughing on the beaches in Tel Aviv and it says, “The beaches of Israel are waiting for you!” This is the cruelest part of the day. I look at this poster every day and know I can never go to those beaches. My family can never go to Tel Aviv and play on the sand because we all have to be back through this checkpoint by 7:00 p.m. or we will lose our work permits or maybe be imprisoned or worse.
I walk through the turnstile, showing my papers to the guard in the booth. I am glad today was an easy day.
My parents packed up my sister and me in 1955 and left Brooklyn for Jerusalem. They were happy there—my father was an accountant and my mother was a Jewish Donna Reed. There was art and culture in the city, and we had lots of friends.
Yet, something had changed after World War II and the Shoah. My parents saw that, in the States, my sister and I were American first, and Jewish when we had the time. We went to Hebrew school, but would rather be out playing than in the synagogue.
One day, I came home from school, and was surprised to find my father home early from work. I tried to put my kippah back on before he noticed I wasn’t wearing it. It didn’t work. He asked me quietly but sternly why I was not wearing my kippah. I told him the big boy at school, Jimmy, made fun of me and asked me where my tail was. My father tried to explain to me that the kippah was a sign of belonging to God. That we were special, and that we were obedient. But none of that meant much to an 8-year-old kid.
They knew some other families that had moved and resettled. We followed the wave of Zionism that promised something new and exciting where children would be proud of who they were, and where everyone could feel safe.
So we went to Jerusalem, and my sister and I learned Hebrew, and we took field trips to Yad Vashem and Auschwitz, and we were proud to be Jewish. Our parents were glad that we were growing up in a place where we didn’t need to explain ourselves all the time, where everyone understood that Friday nights were spent at home with the family. And we felt safe.
Then the ’60s came and everything changed, just like it changed all over the world. The crowd I was moving with in college had pictures of Israeli tanks bulldozing Palestinian homes in the Six Day War. I didn’t know what to make of all this. These violent images seemed so discordant with what I knew Judaism to be about—community, faith, tradition, and ritual. In 1970 I went back to New York to get my Ph.D. in history. This distance from my home helped me both to love it and to gain some perspective on it. I went back with a commitment to peace.
After teaching at the university for thirty years, I’ve seen a lot. I try to encourage my students to think for themselves, to look around, to get outside of Israel. This is a great faith that we have. We should be proud of it, but we do not need to be scared anymore. For the first time in our history, we have the power, and we do not know how to use it. The result of the Shoah cannot be the oppression of another group of people. That is not what Judaism is about. That is not what six million people died for. And yet, I worry because the young people seem to be more and more radical. They are not religious, but they sign up to fight and carry guns. I am sad for them because they cannot remember a time before the fighting and the fear.
Today, I’m going to a protest in East Jerusalem. They continue to take away homes from Arab families who have lived there for generations. This is not right. So I protest. Every Friday morning, I walk down to join the lines and protest on behalf of my Palestinian friends and colleagues.
I’ve lost many Jewish friends over my political beliefs. They say, God gave us this land. Our ancestors died in the desert so our children could live peacefully and safely in this land. I say, yes, I think we were given this land, but it does not mean we cannot live here with others. It is my love of the land and of the faith and of God that brings me to the protest every week, and brings me to the checkpoints once a month to monitor for human rights violations.
I try to get my Jewish brothers and sisters to see the fear they are living in. We can no longer define ourselves by the Shoah. That cannot justify the abominable actions we take in the world. Rather, that legacy should make us peacemakers. We need to remove ourselves from this trauma competition. I expect the chosen people of God to acknowledge the suffering of others rather than claim a monopoly on pain and suffering.
My parents moved here out of love—love for our family, and love for the Jewish religion and people. It is time to reclaim that love, and to see if it can move us to be a trusting, peaceful nation once again.
I defend Israel and the Jewish people. I help to preserve this way of life that we’ve struggled so long for, and sacrificed for. I’m so proud to be serving our nation as a part of the Israel Defense Force (IDF).
I wasn’t always so proud. I graduated from high school a year ago and joined the IDF because it was what my boyfriend was doing. Some of my girlfriends were opting out to do service instead, but I wanted to show how tough I was. I didn’t want to be any different from the boys in my class.
The training really convinced me, though. We went to Yad Vashem, and learned about how persecuted the Jews have been, not just in the Holocaust, but basically forever. Of course we needed our own land after World War II, and why not the land that God promised us in the Bible? The most emotional part was walking out of the museum and seeing the rolling hillsides of Israel. Our guide told us that we deserved this, that this was what our ancestors had died for, what six million of us had died for. I was glad to see our settlements cropping up in the distance, with their bright white concrete.
I had always known that my great-grandfather was killed in the Holocaust, but it didn’t mean anything to me until that day. My mother had a picture of him, and told stories about him, but it always seemed like something that happened so long ago. I thought of him when I heard all the stories at Yad Vashem. I wondered if he died doing something heroic. I wondered if he was in any of the pictures of the prisoners. Being there, I realized that the Holocaust wasn’t something that only happened a long time ago, but it could happen again at any moment.
My family was never very religious, but I’ve started going to the synagogue on a regular basis. I want my children to have a good Jewish mother, and I want to learn all I can about what I am protecting and what I am prepared to die for.
It’s also fun being in the IDF! I’ve made the best friends of my life. We joke around a lot, and on our days off, we go out drinking and dancing. I feel like I belong to a group that is respected and trusted with such an important job. Unfortunately, some of my friends are apathetic about the IDF, and some are even opposed. We don’t talk any more. They are scared and can’t understand what it’s like to have the responsibility of defending the Jewish people. I hope they come to their senses one day.
After basic training, I was assigned to one of the checkpoints along the separation barrier. It wasn’t very busy, but I still needed to pay attention to the Arabs. I knew a family that lost a child to a suicide bomber when I was young. Thank God the separation barrier went up. There have been far fewer terrorist attacks since then, but you never know. I don’t take any chances. If anyone looks suspicious or nervous, we question them and search them. If they don’t have their work papers, or don’t have a clear destination, we question them. This is to protect our people. Until the Muslims can learn to be peaceful, we will need to control them. I worry sometimes that the lack of recent suicide bombings means they are just figuring out ways to get around the barrier.
Now I am working in Hebron. It is a bit more challenging here because of the presence of the settlers. Some of them have guns, but we still need to keep them safe from the Arabs. I don’t like everything the settlers do, of course. They shouldn’t throw glass and bricks down on the marketplace. A man was seriously injured a few weeks ago that way. But I guess they have a right to be there if they want to be, which means keeping the Arabs away from them. This does mean many inconvenient road closures and detours, but our trucks can get around anything, and it slows down the Palestinians.
I make sure my gun is visible when I sit in the booth. It helps to establish power. Also, I never smile, even at the children who go through to get to school. I don’t want them to think I’m their friend, that we have any kind of relationship. I did think they were cute at first, but my friend reminded me what they could grow up to be, what they were likely training them to be in the mosque. Then I didn’t think they were cute.
The prime minister has said that there are still people out there that want to kill us, that want to destroy the Jewish people. And I think that if we ever abandon our presence in the West Bank, these Arabs will push us into the sea. I’m proud to protect us from that, to help fulfill God’s plan for us.