"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept...for there our captors required of us songs." The Israelites replied, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" Psalms 137:1-4
I would like to share with you my experience in traveling to Israel and Palestine last October. Peter Mann, a Presbyterian elder from Crosslake, and I joined an olive picking program in the West Bank, sponsored by the Alternative Tourism Group and the Joint Advocacy Initiative of East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine.
This was not a sightseeing tour but an opportunity to pick olives over a period of seven days. The purpose of this program was to establish civil international solidarity with the Palestinian people and particularly the farmers who raise the olive trees.
The objective was to mobilize as many international women and men from different countries. Our group of 30 included the countries of Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States from various religions and denominational backgrounds. We were assigned to pick olives in areas in proximity to Israeli settlements within the West Bank, principally around Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It would be impossible for the farmers to harvest their crop if help were not provided from other countries. Many of the farmers are completely separated from their fields by the construction of the Wall which in many cases goes right across Palestinian orchards.
The Wall was built by Israel as a "protective" measure against the terrorists, but seen by the Palestinians as a Wall of "separation." Israeli "settlements" continue to be constructed within the West Bank territory and Israeli checkpoints make movement very difficult if not impossible. As part of the wall project, large tracts of Palestinian land are being swallowed up. Olive and citrus trees are being uprooted, and agricultural lands are being bulldozed, isolating many villages from their only source of income and livelihood. Besides picking olives, the program featured presentations form several institutions like the YMCA and provided other cultural aspects of the common life of the people. We had the opportunity to live in the home of a Palestinian Christian family in Bethlehem. We received a firsthand view from the adults and children of what life was like living in an occupied territory. Yet the people in Bethlehem cannot even go into Jerusalem without crossing through checkpoints allowed only with Israeli-allocated permits. We also toured the old city of Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the cities of Hebron and Jericho and had a "swim" in the Dead Sea, as well as the Mediterranean Sea at Tel Aviv.
Living under occupation as Palestinians do, singing is difficult. The ancient Israelites faced a similar situation when they were taken into exile. Their captors asked them to sing. Their reply was "How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4). They found it difficult to sing under the humiliating condition of exile. The Prophet Jeremiah's advice was to "Pray to the Lord" for God was with them even in the condition of captivity. (Jeremiah 29:5-7). Palestinians, too, find it difficult to be anything but melancholy with the massive apartheid wall, the extensive checkpoints, the confiscation of land and the desolation of homes. Their outcry should be, "How can we sing under occupation?" Yet, I was impressed how the people were cheerful and not depressed and lived with the theme of "keeping hope alive" in their hearts and minds. It was an expression of their hope and trust in God.
Overall, it was an awesome, life-changing experience. I was indelibly impressed how the Wall and the checkpoints have a devastating effect upon the whole peace effort between Israel and Palestine. I shall ever be aware and work for peace, justice and freedom for the Palestinian people, while at the same time praying for the peace and security of Israel as a whole. Please pray that the cycle of poverty and injustice will soon be broken and that peace will prevail.
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