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Bethel-Tabor interterm explores Holy Land during recent Gaza conflict

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In January, Patty Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College in North Newton, and Doug Miller, professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, had “the unique experience,” as Shelly put it, of traveling with students to a country at war.

For the second time, the Jerusalem Seminar, which runs every other year, was planned as a joint venture between these two Mennonite-affiliated four-year colleges in south central Kansas. Then on December 27, 2008, as a group of 27 was preparing to leave on Jan. 5 for three weeks in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the state of Israel launched a military campaign in the Gaza Strip – air strikes and, beginning Jan. 3, a ground offensive.

Shelly and Miller decided to proceed with the trip as planned. On Feb. 9, they along with two Bethel students (there were 10 total, plus four from Tabor) and one non-student participant spoke in convocation on the Bethel campus about their experience.

“Sometimes because of the dominance of Israel and Palestine in the news, it is difficult to remember what a small amount of territory we are talking about,” Shelly said. She showed a map of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip superimposed to scale on a map of Kansas to give a visual idea of the distance between Jerusalem and Gaza (about 50 miles).

“The point of this map is that in some ways we were very close to the fighting,” Shelly said, “but in other ways, we were very far away. The war was very localized in Gaza and the immediate surroundings.”

“We never saw fighting,” said Amanda Rempel, Newton, a chaplain at Kidron Bethel Village, who went on the trip with her husband, Clarence, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Newton. “We never heard gunshots. But Gaza was with us throughout the three weeks.”

The group was able to travel and explore the region in relative normalcy – going, as planned, to places like the Sea of Galilee area connected to the stories of Jesus, to Bethlehem and to Mount Tabor for the four Tabor College students and three faculty members (Judy Harder and Holly Swartzendruber, in addition to Miller) to have a photo taken at the foot of their namesake.

But, as Rempel said, Gaza stayed with them, perhaps nowhere so strongly as in Bethlehem. Revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is a short six miles from Jerusalem yet since 2003 has stood separated from it by a concrete “security wall” 25-30 feet high.

When the Bethel-Tabor group spent several days in Bethlehem, they found shopkeepers as eager to talk about what was happening in their country and region as they were to sell souvenirs, Rempel said. “We heard a lot of anger about the killing [in Gaza],” she said, “and fear for their own children and grandchildren.”

The Palestinian death toll from the 22-day offensive in Gaza is estimated at 1,200-1,300, a substantial number of them civilians, especially children, with hundreds more wounded, Shelly said. Fourteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians.

“I thought I knew something of the situation [in Israel-Palestine] from listening to the news and following legislation,” said Bethel sophomore Alison Schmidt-Tieszen, Newton. “I learned there’s always another side to the story.”

“Until recently, I didn’t follow much of the news on Israel-Palestine,” added Bethel senior Meredith Lehman, Bluffton, Ohio. “I started paying more attention when I began planning to go there – especially about exactly where those rockets might land.

“I saw it as a simple narrative,” she continued, “a war between governments, nothing [United Nations] intervention and a ceasefire couldn’t stop. That’s not the reality for Israelis and Palestinians. It’s not just hoping for a ceasefire, for no tanks in the streets, for an end to daily violence. They haven’t lived in peace for decades.”

As Doug Miller reflected on the Jerusalem Seminar experience, he recalled a conference he attended 18 months ago where two presenters claimed to have identified “the root cause of violence among human beings” as religion. The rationale: Every religion is based on the premise that “we” have it right and “everybody else” has it wrong, Miller said, those who believe they’re right try to manipulate those they think are wrong, and “from this small act of violence proceeds major acts of violence, including war and ethnic cleansing.”

“Certainly in the Holy Land one can feel the power of religion to motivate tensions,” Miller said. “Especially those of monotheistic persuasion seem determined to harm one another.”

However, he added, “If we were to accept the proposal [that religion is the source of the world’s violence], we would not have much hope for progress. There is another complication … that is also evident in the Holy Land: religion is sometimes the major energy that seeks reconciliation and the end of violence.”

The Jerusalem Seminar participants saw this firsthand when they visited and learned about the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and similar Western-initiated peacemaking organizations, as well as indigenous groups like the Christian Palestinian Sabeel and the Israeli Zochrot, which both seek to promote dialogue, truth-telling and understanding about – depending on perspective – the birth of the state of Israel or the “Nakba” (catastrophe) to Palestinians driven from their homes, in 1948.

The Bethel-Tabor group also met with Combatants for Peace, a movement started jointly by Palestinians and Israelis who have been either soldiers in the Israeli army (IDF) or fighters for Palestinian freedom and who, “having seen one another only through weapon sights, have decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace,” according to the Combatants for Peace Web site.

To Miller, the actions of MCC workers, Combatants for Peace and others are “mustard seeds of peace in the region.” From these sources, he added, “I also heard a different kind of mustard seed, a seed of virtue, [which] can be summarized like this: ‘We all have a lot to learn from people different than we are, from people we fear and from people we disagree with.’

“I heard this when I asked one of the Palestinian Combatants for Peace how he was able to trust former Israeli soldiers. He told me that he listened to their story, learned about their fears and why they did what they did, then he began to understand them. In contrast, approaches to the tensions in Gaza and elsewhere that deal in destroying lives and building walls seem … in that context not only reprehensible but particularly counterproductive.

“When we understand the heart of our faith – the mission of Jesus to build God’s kingdom – to be reconciliation between people and God but also between people and people,” Miller said, “when we do not fear to learn from those who are different, even from those with whom we disagree, our faith becomes not an instrument of manipulation and violence, but a means of service and hope.”

“Gaza is still with me [now that I’ve returned home],” Rempel said, “as I seek to understand and to assess fairly and as I pray for the people of Israel, Palestine and Gaza to be able to share the land and live in peace.”

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