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In Israel/Palestine, places inspiring and people even more so

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In Israel/Palestine, we met many fantastic people who live in an arduous situation.

A massive wall slices through the West Bank. Think Berlin Wall – but twice as high, surrounding Palestinian cities and limiting movement within the West Bank, and to Israel.

Checkpoints are easy for American tourists to cross, but Israelis face large signs instilling fear that crossing is a mortal danger, while Palestinians face harassment, delays, and at times, tear gas.

Palestinian homes have huge water tanks on the roofs because the Israeli government only turns their water on sporadically, roughly once a month, so the tanks store it between those instances.

Israelis my age do compulsory military service which, in one case we saw, means standing in a tollbooth-like box to guard a deserted street all day. In a part of Jerusalem that looks like it could be a European pedestrian city center, soldiers with assault rifles on every block are a commonplace aspect of Israeli life.

Despite these conditions of intense militarism in Israeli society, and dehumanization and oppression in Occupied Palestine, the people living there with whom we interacted were surprisingly hopeful and delightfully hospitable.

One of the most striking moments was in Hebron, with our guide, Walid. He led us to Shuhada Street – a ghost town created by forced shop closings, where Palestinians are prohibited. Walid sent us ahead to see it and in the meantime talked to the soldiers there.

When we returned, he was joking with the soldier named Barack about his similarity to the U.S. President. While the soldiers maintain institutionalized oppression, Walid believed in their humanity and reached out so they might view him as more than a nameless threat.

In West Jerusalem, we talked to a rabbi who explained his perspective on why Israel should become a great country. As a nation of God’s Old Testament people, Israel could have an impact on global policy and bring a faith-based moral perspective to the world stage.

However, the current regime functions secularly and is focused on a culture of fear, motivated by the idea that the rest of the Middle East is out to destroy Israel.

Other people who graced our trip: Ruth, an Israeli mother who helped her pacifist son find alternative service and works to expose the harms of militarism; Nabeel, a man in Ramallah who suffers memory loss but still calls people to sing for peace; Cedar, a Palestinian Christian who teaches Palestinian liberation theology, an interpretation of the Bible in context of occupation; Jonathan and his family, immigrants from England who were my hosts for a Shabbat meal; Anan, a Muslim in Bethlehem happy to wish us “Merry Christmas” because it was the Orthodox date for Christmas; and the men from Combatants for Peace, ex-fighters from both sides of the conflict who decided nonviolence was a better option.

While the ruins, churches and historical sites throughout the Holy Land were magnificent, the people who live in such a tense situation but hold onto their humanity were even more inspiring.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Leah Towle is a senior from Lawrence. Other students in the 2015 Bethel interterm class Jerusalem Seminar, led by Lois Harder, pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, Wichita, were Isaac Dunn, Fresno, California, Westen Gesell, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Emma Hilgenfeld, Whitewater, Jennifer Kaufman, Moundridge, Zachary Preheim, Peabody, Melinda Regehr, Whitewater, and Caroline Schrag, Marion, South Dakota. Non-students on the trip were local residents Hugo and Mary Ann Boschmann, North Newton, Darlene Dick, North Newton, Karen and Larry Loganbill, Moundridge, Karen Penner, Newton, Marvin Thieszen, North Newton, and Lee and Susan Wheeler, Hesston, along with Susan Dunn, Fresno, California, Brenda Martin Hurst, Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, Christina Litwiller, Salina, Barbara Souder, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Eugene Thieszen, Cordell, Oklahoma.

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