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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

January 13, 2004
   Vol. 1, No. 39

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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.

Treaties don't do it; Homes do

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Editor's Note: This article is the third of a four-part series about Joan Chittister's recent trip to Israel and Palestine. To read the earlier intallments, follow these links: When stepping backward becomes a step forward and Problem: When is smuggling not smuggling?.
Governments wage both war and peace on paper. Real people, on the other hand, bear the brunt of both.

Governments plan "strategic attacks" and -- in Iraq, at least -- never even bother to count the bodies they leave behind. Nor do they ever count the mothers or children or young wives or old fathers who find themselves standing beside those whose death leaves them without a future, bereft of a past.

Governments also make peace on paper. They divide territories, whole countries, tribes, clans and families and sign treaties to ratify the divisions. But the treaties do not work. Long after the paper fades, the war goes on in the hearts of those whose lives were silently smothered by it.

In our own time, they have done it in Germany, Korea, Africa and Israel-Palestine. The scars of arbitrary land-grabs -- drawn up in small dark rooms and large conference halls by men who have never even walked the territory, let alone lived there, left relatives there, built there or buried their dead there -- never heal on the streets and villages where peace really counts.

Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda rage at each other over lost tribal territories. Koreans weep at the border and threaten one another with a new generation of Koreans who stand toe to toe, promising to annihilate cousins they have never met.

Germans died in a "No Man's Land" in East Berlin, attempting to reunite with family members on the other side of town.

In Israel, a 750-km. wall costing a million dollars a kilometer separates farmers from their chickens, families from their olive groves. "They make a desert," the Roman philosopher Seneca said, "And call it peace." But it is those who have lost their lands, have been divided from their families, in whom the war never ends and for whom peace never comes.

Some past columns: "From Where I Stand"
Sept. 23, 03 With Isaac and Ishmael in mind Joan Chittister's first encounter at a checkpoint
July 1, 03 The common cry: Let my people go Two women Joan Chittister met at the Woman's Partnership for Peace in the Middle East
June 24, 03 Unleashing a power such as the world has never seen The first meeting of the Women's Partnership for Peace
Sept. 30, 03 Don't forget that it's your wall, too An earlier trip to Israel and Palestine
In Israel, I discover, it is unusually easy to become embroiled in the game of who's right and who's wrong.

The Jewish people need a homeland, yes. The Palestinians rejected the 1948 U.N. mandate that decreed that, yes.

The Palestinians need a homeland, yes. The Israelis refuse to recognize that, yes.

The Israelis hesitate even to put their children on a school bus, yes. The Arabs, minus the political rights of a sovereign nation, are insecure even in their homes, yes.

The Israelis are living in fear, yes. The Palestinians are living in fear, yes.

Both peoples want peace, yes. Both governments refuse to negotiate it, yes.

When both governments do negotiate, both peoples lose and which side is "right" begins to pale. I saw it with my own eyes.

Basma, the attractive and lively young Palestinian woman who acted as a kind of local secretary to the U.N.-initiated "Women's Global Peace Initiative," met us at our meeting sites every morning in the same clothes. It took four days before I realized that Basma didn't have any other clothes. Her 14-apartment housing complex had been bulldozed the week before because Israeli soldiers had reason to believe that a suspected terrorist had run into the building for refuge. They killed the suspect and then bulldozed the building anyway. No residents were allowed to retrieve anything from the building before it was leveled. Basma had no clothes, no books, no records, nothing now. And yet, every morning she came to work for peace.

On the other hand, we visited the planned city of Ariel on the top of a mountain in Samaria, one of Israel's West Bank settlements. When Ariel's first settlers arrived there 29 years ago, in 1975, the mountaintop was bare. Now it is a city of 18,000 inhabitants, 9,000 of whom are immigrants from Russia. It is a gleaming new development, sparklingly clean, completely "built by these 10 fingers," as one woman put it.

Ariel is a totally wireless college town of over 10,000 students -- thanks to one woman's investment of $18 million -- and a center for the development of laser crystals and medical research. There are 120 factories in Ariel that employ over 6,000 people, 2,000 of them Arab. Rethink the word "settlement." In 1992, with the freezing of settlements on the West Bank, all construction in Ariel stopped. Now the city park, the sports complex and the cultural center are empty shells of a city whose evolution was stopped in mid-flight in a settlement initially planned to be home for 60,000 to 80,000 people.

If present peace plans are ever completed, Ariel will be one of the settlements dismantled or left to Palestinian control.

"We used to have good relationships with our Arab neighbors. I miss them," one woman said.

Another woman said, "I helped build this city from the ground up. It is our biblical right. After all, the prophet Jeremiah said, "The time will come when you will plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria."

A third woman explained, "I've lived here over 20 years. I love every inch of it. I have as much right to live here as anyone does to live in Haifa. Why Ariel for peace; why not Tel Aviv for peace?"

Lena, born in Russian, came to Ariel in 1991. "This is the only place Jews can live. We want peace, but we may have to sacrifice (our children) to get it. ... I'm not ready to sacrifice our land."

Jewish women, all long-time members of the Israeli peace movement, sat quietly and listened to the women from Ariel. "We do not seek agreements," they said. "We seek understanding of each other through personal encounters, through humanizing the dispute, through a search for common ground." Three members of the group, all women rabbis, will go back every month to hold discussion groups with the women of Ariel.

Margaret Thatcher said once, "In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."

All the treaties written and proclaimed in government Rose Gardens have yet to work. From where I stand, it looks like it may be only these women -- one displaced Palestinian girl, one group of Arab-Israeli women -- working together to save one another's homes who can ever get beyond politics to peace.

Back in the hotel meeting rooms, I saw a young Jewish mother hand her baby to a blind Palestinian woman while she rose to talk about the uselessness of peace treaties and the need for common public actions that would say a decisive no to war. Looking at the two of them, totally unconscious of the gap in culture and concerns they had bridged by that very act, I knew that the work had already begun.

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