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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

June 15, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 10

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

So what are we doing about it?

By Joan Chittister,OSB

There’s a time to ask whether or not a thing is worth what it will take to get it. In fact, there comes a time to ask if we even know what we’re trying to get at all. I just came back from one of those times.

As co-chairs of the international Global Peace Initiative of Women, three of us were attempting to help Israeli and Palestinian women move toward an international conference on justice and reconciliation in the Middle East that could transcend both their governments and the wall that separates them. We soon realized, however, that the conflict far exceeds the Middle East itself.

Of the almost 6 billion people on the planet, 4 billion of them are Muslim, Jewish or Christian–one of the Abrahamic faiths. All of them, therefore, relate in some way to Israel, to Jerusalem, to the Middle East.  So what are we all trying to get there? What the people there need? Or what we want? And if we get what we want, will it really preserve what is best for the rest of the world.

We walked across the Old City, for instance, on the way to visit a neighborhood art center for Muslim children. But the Old City, which in all my previous visits had been a crush of jostling tourists and vendors, stood grey and dirty and deserted. There was no one there. They are afraid, we were told. Jews are afraid of the randomness of terrorist bombings. Muslims are afraid of the Jews and their soldiers. Christian tourists are afraid of both.

In other words, what happens in this little plot of land in the center of the globe affects us all. Israel is the ultimate center of all our lives.  It gives us identity; it gives us direction; it gives us meaning.

The world is held together by string, it seems, and the bow of it has been tied over Jerusalem. To pull on either end of the knot is risky. The situation in the Middle East is not simply a small, ethnic conflict. The resolution of the Middle Eastern situation is crucial to us all.

Maybe that’s why it is so difficult to do it. None of us can be really sure that we are truly impartial observers, uninvested facilitators, truly objective consultants. “To be honest,” the woman in Ramalla said, “I’m not sure that Americans (meaning us) can really help us.  We do not see Americans as friends anymore.”

But the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall and the Garden of Olives mean as much to me as they do to her. I am not there as an ‘American’–if by American you mean a citizen of the USA, a bearer of the American flag, a defender of American policy. I’m there, as are all the women with me in this great global interfaith endeavor of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, out of the certain spiritual awareness that the God of Abraham has ‘chosen’ us all.

That’s why the walk through Jerusalem last week struck so deep a timbre in the soul. That’s why no answer was clearly the right answer.

We talked to Israeli cab drivers who called out the windows of their idled cars begging to be engaged. “There is no one here,” one driver said. “Look around!” He spread his arm widely, tracing the length of the road. “We cannot pick up Arabs for fear they do not have permits. And the Christians go other places now for vacation.” 

Israeli cab drivers, we learned, who pick up Palestinians without permits proper to the areas in which they’re driving, have their cabs impounded, pay a huge fine and are taken directly to jail. It’s very effective law, perhaps, but it’s also very destructive of Israeli economics. So what is the answer to that?

Palestinians, we now realize, can hardly move in the country. On the way to a woman’s center, for instance, our own car had to change direction three separate times in order to find a route where the line of cars ahead of us was not so unendingly long.

 Checkpoints, of which there are 486 in the country--20% of them mobile--stop every car, every person, along the road, sometimes for hours keeping them from work and family and even personal care.  A blind Palestinian therapist came late to the women’s meeting in Ramallah because she had been standing in one of those lines in the hot sun for over two hours. Worn down by months of going back and forth to help people who were not allowed to come to her, she burst into tears. After all, despite all her efforts to be part of the group, our meeting was now almost over. “But worst of all,” she blurted out, “ambulances were there even longer than I and they would not let them through.”

But bombs and bombers had already tried to enter Jerusalem in ambulances before, the Israelis told us. So what is the answer to that?

Most poignant of all was the insight of the three year old in the small, bare “library” on the rooftop children’s center in the Muslim Quarter.

Tired from the long walk through the narrow alleys and up the cobblestone steps of the Old City, I had sat down at a rickety cafeteria table in the room, discouraged by the emptiness we had walked all this way to see. Even the site itself was fragile. Below us, land was being confiscated to build yet another Jewish settlement in the heart of the old Muslim district.

Suddenly, a small boy about three years old, tight black curls and huge blue eyes, put a book down in front of me. Pointing to the Arabic script, he announced the parts of every page: “Blue,” he said and I nodded approvingly. “Red,” he pointed to emphatically. “Yellow,” he insisted I repeat while I told him how wonderful he was.

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Later, the director told us, his mother asked him what he had been doing in the library. “Did you see those three ladies who came in here?” the child explained. “Well, not one of them could read a single word. So I had to help them.”

From where I stand, the boy is more right than we might think. We need to learn to read the signs. Israel is the microcosm of a newly dawning truth: national boundaries will never really work again to define or exclude or preserve any one or any thing. Whatever the language of it, rabid, rancid nationalism is not the answer.

This isn’t their problem only. It’s our problem, too. And we are all going to reap the whirlwind if we don’t deal with this situation with an even hand.

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