Whenever I tell people about my job, or explain to them that I work for Musalaha, and that we seek to facilitate reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, I am usually met with a cynical or sarcastic response. Even people sympathetic to this goal recognize the immensity of the project, and rarely miss the opportunity to ask, “So, when can we expect peace in the Middle East?” This can be very disheartening, because the work of reconciliation is already difficult, and slow, with few tangible signs of progress. When the current political situation is considered, (and we are constantly reminded of it through the media and in our everyday lives) it is often hard to believe that reconciliation will ever be possible in this place. In spite of all the evidence against it, however, there is reason for hope. I was recently infused with inspiration, and would like to share the story with you as a word of encouragement.
From July 20th to 24th, I served as a counselor at Musalaha’s seventh annual Children’s Summer Camp. This camp brought together nearly 70 Israeli and Palestinian children, as well as an additional 40 counselors. It was a wonderful time of fun, fellowship, challenge and growth. This year we were privileged to be joined by a group from the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton in California (EV Free) who brought a lot of passion and enthusiasm, and were a great help to the local staff and counselors running the camp. The theme of this year’s camp was The Life of Daniel, and covered the dramatic events of Daniel’s life in Babylon, and how God worked miraculously through him and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
This camp is a project that God has greatly blessed, and has seen many children returning year after year because of the friendships they have made. The same goes for the counselors, many of whom are former campers, and veteran Musalaha participants. This camp is special because it provides an opportunity for Palestinian and Israeli children to meet with each other, and develop friendships across ethnic, national, and even religious lines. The reason this is unique is because there are many in both Israeli and Palestinian society that seek to actively discourage this type of meeting. It is socially, and religiously unacceptable, and these children face strong pressure from their society, and peers, to hate the other side and to refuse to engage with them at all. Making friends with someone from the other side is a statement against this pervasive negativity, and the first step in the process of reconciliation.
At camp this year there was a Jewish Israeli boy named Yakov, from Nazareth Illit. Nazareth is one of the biggest Palestinian cities inside Israel, and Nazareth Illit is a mostly Jewish suburb of Nazareth. Although they live right next to it, and are technically a part of the same city, most of the Jewish residents of Nazareth Illit avoid going into Nazareth itself. Because there were a number of campers arriving from Nazareth, Musalaha arranged for a bus to leave from the city, and Yakov’s family was informed that he was welcome to join them. Although they were initially happy that transportation was being provided, when they found out that they would have to bring their son to Nazareth to catch the bus, they decided against it. They were uncomfortable dropping their son off in Nazareth, and even preferred to pay for his way on another bus as an alternative. In the end they did consent to Yakov riding on the Nazareth bus, but expressed apprehension and were not completely happy with the arrangement.
Once Yakov arrived at camp, he was assigned to my cabin. At camp he met a Palestinian Israeli boy, Farid, who was from Nazareth and was also assigned to my cabin. They hit it off immediately, and spent the whole week together. I was able to observe them since they were both in my cabin, and it was amazing to see how their friendship developed. Farid translated for Yakov when the other children spoke Arabic, and Yakov began teaching Farid some Russian (he speaks Russian and Hebrew). I think he learned to count to ten by the end of camp. They played football together, did crafts together, and spent a lot of time just hanging out. While they both made other friends at camp as well, it was evident that a special bond had been created between them. At one point we were running late for our Bible study, and everyone in our cabin had already left except for me, Yakov and Farid. Yakov was ready, but Farid was still looking through his bag for his Bible. I told Yakov to go on, and that Farid and I would be along shortly, but he would not go without his new friend.
Finally, on the last day of camp, I overheard a conversation they were having as I sat with them at lunch. Yakov was explaining to someone else how he and Farid were going to ride home together on the same bus. He was excited about it, and repeated a number of times that he was going to be dropped off in Nazareth, and picked up by his parents. Although this was not a big deal, and may seem small when set off against the large scope of the conflict, to me it was amazing. This child whose parents were not comfortable letting him go to Nazareth before, was now excited about going because he has a friend there. Once you know someone, and make a personal connection, the place you fear is no longer a faceless, scary place, it is a human place. It was also amazing for Farid, who now has a Jewish friend who is willing to come visit him, even though they both know it is something completely out of the ordinary.
Their example is inspirational, for they embody “The reconciliation of Jesus Christ,” which “is a new basis of union that is inclusive and liberating. It presupposes the removal of barriers and the competing claims that have divided. To be reconciled means that we are no longer defined by the old divisions, but by a new reality.” These children are the future and represent our hope. They will bring about this new reality of peace, tolerance, and love and we must follow their example.
This was not a miracle in the vein of interpreting visions and dreams, being saved from the lion’s den, of emerging from the fiery furnace unscathed, but in the context of the conflict, it was certainly remarkable. If we are faithful to God’s commands, he will show Himself to us, and the scriptures are clear, we are commanded by Him to reconcile with our brothers and sisters. Just as God was there to support and protect Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who chose to faithfully worship Him, in Daniel 3:24-28, He is there with us too, when conflict and hate rage all around us, standing by our side through the flames.