Until a few weeks ago, most of my knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came from stories.
My father owned a Time-Life book set on World War II that sat on our living room bookshelf. I would periodically pull the one about “The Final Solution” off the shelf and page through solemnly, taking in the photos of huddled people with ragged stars stitched on their coats, of cattle cars, of a pale-faced little boy holding up his hands to surrender in the Warsaw ghetto. I sat looking at those photos, struggling to absorb the stories they told, their horror far too vast for my child’s heart (for anyone’s heart) to fully comprehend. What so moved and disturbed me about those photos, besides the history they portrayed, was how much like me so many of those doomed Jews were. Many of them were middle- and upper-middle-class educated people. Their children grew up much as I did, in comfortable homes filled with books and conversation, their days marked by school and the dinner hour and so many other taken-for-granted rituals. On the surface, the victims’ stories were much like my own in so many ways—but not in how they ended.
As I grew older, I continued to seek out Holocaust stories, fictional and not—When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Sophie’s Choice, Night, The Sunflower. For my religion major in college, I took an entire course on the Holocaust, which gave a me a wider historical lens through which to view the horrific events of 1930s and 40s Europe. I learned how the Jews had been denied citizenship even in countries where they had lived for centuries. I began to understand how a people without the protection of a state that claims them are uniquely vulnerable to persecution. For the first time, I understood why the state of Israel was so necessary.
I started hearing stories of Palestinian life when my dear friend Sally started traveling regularly to the West Bank for her work with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT delegations aim to “get in the way,” providing both modest protections to Palestinians whose every movement is state-controlled, and a witness (people are less likely to overstep their legal bounds if a third party is watching). For example, Sally has met Palestinian shepherds who are unable to easily get to their land—land that has been in their families for generations—to care for their sheep because of a checkpoint or other barrier. CPTers accompany the shepherds on their daily trek, which makes it less likely the Palestinians will be held or harassed by soldiers. Sally and her teams have also accompanied Palestinian children to school, and held conversations with both Palestinians and Israelis. Some of Sally’s most poignant stories are of conversations with young Israeli soldiers, in which they let down their guard and say that they sometimes struggle with the moral questions raised by their job.
Stories have a unique power to connect people and blast through the platitudes that we so frequently pull out in response to hard questions. But when it comes to my knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, my appetite for stories needed to be enriched by some plain old facts. I knew the basics of the Zionist movement, Israel’s founding in 1948, and more recent developments concerning Jewish settlements in disputed territory. But I was missing many details as well as firm definitions of words and names featured in news stories. So I picked up Dale Hanson Bourke’s just-released addition to InterVarsity Press’s “Skeptics Guides” series on The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers.
While this little book is meant primarily as a source of information, Bourke’s skill as a writer, as well as her compassion, shines through. She writes:
As I researched and wrote this book, the two questions I was asked most often were, “Is there hope to end the conflict?” and “Have you decided who is wrong and who is right?” I now realize those two questions are linked. The more time we spend deciding who is wrong or right, the less hope there is to end the conflict. Even as Americans, thousands of miles away, we can add fuel to the fire by emotionally taking sides instead of looking at specific issues.
I have often argued that storytelling is vital to discourse around difficult issues, because stories are rarely black and white and thus they force us to see the complexities inherent in any conflict. The pitfall of storytelling, however, is that we learn to tell and listen to only a certain type of story—stories that prove we are right, with a moral point that just so happens to jibe with our opinions. As followers of the ultimate peacemaker, Christians must not merely welcome stories that make us uncomfortable and challenge our presuppositions, but also get our facts straight.
Bourke concludes her book by writing:
What I believe is this: We all need to learn more about Israelis and Palestinians, to better understand each of their struggles. We need to listen more. Yes, we need to advocate, but out of knowledge, not emotion. We need to meet more people who we see as representing “the other side,” and then we must sincerely listen to what they have to say.
Whether we’re telling stories or absorbing facts (or ideally, doing both), we are called to be compassionate listeners. Dale Hanson Bourke’s book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers is a vital tool for that endeavor.