In what follows I offer another reflection based on my time in Israel/Palestine with The Global Immersion Project. What a life-changing time and a life-changing organization to be connected to. I can’t recommend them enough!
The old saying goes that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Art does something to free the imagination to dream of a different reality. Some things are so beautiful that we are left pondering the vast creativity of God and God’s universe. A sunset. A photo. A graffiti mural. Yes, although graffiti often carries the connotation of being connected to gangs, there exists a movement of tagger-artists who love to simply make blank canvases beautiful – often to provoke the onlooker’s imagination to stare reality in the face and to dream of a better future. This comes to life in the work of Banksy.
Banksy, who no one knows the identity of, is a street artist recognized for speaking against injustice and provoking hope through street art (amongst other things). His painting in Bethlehem of an IDF soldier being padded down by a young occupied girl in the West Bank, invites us to ponder the difficult realities at play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bansky shows us how art can tell a story – often a lingering story.
Palestinians understand this as well. Since 1948 they have been occupied by Israel in some form or another. Today, occupation looks like separation walls (between Israel and the West Bank [Bethlehem, etc.], between Israel and Gaza) and fresh-out-of-high-school soldiers with heavy machine guns – most of whom have never spoken to a Palestinian prior to being given such power. It looks like fear and dehumanization. But art, tells of the other side of the story: memory and hope.
In 1948 (and following) many Palestinians were forced out of their villages by Zionist soldiers. Often through deception or force, the Arab peoples lost their homes, possessions, and farmland. As I drove through the West Bank, I was in awe of the amount of art committed to preserving the memory of the villages that were taken. Consider these pictures that I snapped (granted, while in a moving bus):
Remembering, of course, is what the biblical people of God did, even into the New Testament period. Over and over again we see God reminding the people of their past in order to prepare them for a fresh future. The same is true for modern day Palestinians. Many of them choose to remember their roots, even in an uprooted scenario which placed many of them in refugee camps, as a means through which identity is maintained and hope is assured.
In Aida Refugee Camp (just outside of Bethlehem), remembering fuels their hope. A small camp of just over 3,000, the art on the walls tells a story:
The memory of a reality outside of the refugee camp funds a dream that one-day they will experience a life like their grandparents did. The difficult living situations of today were not always normal. In this following piece, the people of Aida Camp remember their roots:
In Balata Camp, the home of a condensed refugee camp of over 29,000 Palestinians, art provokes the memory of a past, clouded by a present situation of poverty and oppressive living conditions. It was in the context of this camp that some suicide bombers admittedly emerged during the second intifada.
What we learned is that most of these were youngsters who were suffering from severe PTSD after witnessing family members being killed out in the open by IDF Soldiers (seriously, the personal stories are heart wrenching). Essentially, when we create the conditions for oppression, the natural result will often be acting out in violent regression. Neither the actions of the IDF soldiers or those who took up violence on the Palestinian side should be celebrated or downplayed – both sorts of actions dehumanize and make a bad situation worse.
But most people in Balata don’t seek violence to solve their problems – but cling to memory and hope. The following mural reminds those in Balata of a day when visiting the holy city of Jerusalem was normal and when peace was present. Not only so, but it points to a hope for a return to such a life scenario:
Although Balata is sometimes known for a few suicide bombers, I can say with confidence that this is a place of warmth – even toward a group of middle/upper class Americans. Not once did I feel in danger as I walked through the cramped alleyways (which define the interior of the camp), but rather I felt kindness. In a situation where privacy is nonexistent, living conditions are terrible, and where normal life is dictated by injustices like water rations – love is possible. These folks are hungry for peace and justice.
Hope Beyond Occupation
To remember well, is to remember with honesty about the past with the hope of a better future. Something that I learned during my time with Palestinians is that the symbolic power of house keys. When they were forced out of their homes and villages, many of these native peoples kept hold of their keys with the hope of return. In fact, when we met with a local Muslim Sheik he told us that each generation in his family passes down the keys to their home in the hope of return. This art piece near Aida Camp articulates this hope:
Keys aren’t the only sign of hope in refugee camps. There are great organizations like the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center (Aida) and Yafa Cultural Center (Balata – led by great folks such as our new friend Mahmoud) which aim to bring hope into the lives of young people under the harsh conditions of occupation. In such organizations, students are learning to see beyond the walls that attempt to hold their physical lives and imaginations captive.
These students are learning that peace and change are possible – for them as individuals and their communities. Giant walls will not define them – all because peacemakers like Mahmoud are determined to show these young people that a better world can emerge.
Reflecting on Art and Peace
As a follower of Jesus my heart broke as I walked the streets near and in the camps of the Westbank. So much of this conflict is driven by fear and so much of the solution is driven by hope. Art tells the story of the past and points toward a better future. Through street art, like the pieces that have made Banksy famous, people under occupation tell a story that isn’t often told here in the United States. These stories need to be told!
And I realize that some will say “Kurt, this feels like a ‘one-sided’ article – what about…?” To this I simply say that I intend to tell the story of the West Bank as I experienced it – as an American Christian who was blind to this situation for most of my life. And I am not alone. Several Israelis have come to see the plight of their sisters and brothers on the other side of the wall and are calling for change. They too are calling for peace and justice. May we followers of Jesus stand arm-in-arm with all those who seek the good of humanity – who seek the peace of the Holy Land – Jew, secularist, Muslim, and Christian alike. Perhaps a generation from now the art of resistance will be the creation of shared murals of love between all of the people in the Land.