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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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September 23, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 26

  With Isaac and Ishmael in mind
"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.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

The place is Israel. The scene is the Calendria gate between Ramallah on the West Bank and Jerusalem, 20 minutes away. Four other members of the Global Initiative for Peace by Women Religious Leaders and I are returning to Jerusalem from a visit into the Palestinian city of Ramallah to see for ourselves what is really going on in occupied Palestinian areas and Israeli border areas.

I stood in line under a corrugated metal overhang. The hot sun beat down on us turning the line into a cauldron of human sweat. Some place near us, a cesspool was running hot and dry. Dirt covered the cloth of my shoes and I could taste the sand in my mouth. Ten and twelve-wheeler trucks churned up the dust of the road around us, belching out diesel fuel, grinding their gears and going nowhere.

Beside me in the line, their faces weathered by the sun, people pressed in, two and three abreast. The line of them, marked by cement highway dividers no more than three feet wide, stretched a block before us and a block behind. We were lucky, they told us. It was a good day. The line was not nearly as long as usual, not as tangled as most other times of the day. But there was no easy camaraderie, no friendly small talk going on here. Instead, people stood with locked jaws and cold eyes. The women, dressed in black chadors, cast suspicious looks at the likes of us. The men, looked away, too shamed, too embarrassed it seemed, to confess their impotence by looking at us. I got the distinct impression that they thought that maybe if they didn't see us, we couldn't see them either.

The silence of the line, the taut and somber faces, made an ominous contrast to the honking of horns at the crossroads nearby, the shouting of vendors whose tiny tables lined the way with cheap trinkets and old plastic bags. Here, there was only the silence of fear and the inner roar of resentment and indignity. People without a country, the Palestinians, were being forced to behave as if they were entering a sovereign nation totally remote, totally foreign to them though they and their families had been here for 2,000 years.

We were at one of the 486 checkpoints that line the West Bank of Israel, separating Palestinians from Israel and even from one another. Checkpoints announce the perimeter of every major Israeli city, and they make internal travel impossible for Palestinians in an area where one village is cut off from the other, even in the Palestinian Territory itself. "Fragment and isolate," one sympathetic Israeli called the policy. Whatever their basic purpose, the checkpoints have spawned a thousand horror stories. Pregnant women, who have no permit to travel that day, give birth in cars by the side of the road. There are at least five certified cases. One old man carrying his oxygen canister was made to walk the block before the guard station and the block of wired walkway beyond it before he could be carried from there by worried family members to the hospital where he would likely die. A younger man in front of us was turned away twice, his face a veritable sculpture of frustration.

The checkpoints are security devices imposed by Israel to stem the flow of suicide bombers from West Bank towns to the malls and cafes and buses of Israel. There have been 1,000 deaths due to bomb attacks in Israel. At the same time, the checkpoints affect the life work, the family ties, the freedom of more than 3 million people in the West Bank and Gaza.

Most of the checkpoints are permanent. Many are mobile, which means they can be put up at any time, anywhere -- and they are. They are strategies meant to resolve what politics has not: the mutual interchange of two whole peoples who spring from the same historical root but have different histories stemming for the Jews from Isaac and for the Arabs from Ishmael.

To understand the emotional impact of the situation, think U.S. military guards between Hispanic villages in the outlying areas of Texas and the city of San Antonio, for instance. Or think gun turrets and internal passport requirements between the Irish neighborhoods of Boston and the downtown Catholic cathedral where they would like to worship. Or think barbed wire separating Atlanta from its white suburbs. Or think armed convoys at the entrance to every Indian reservation in the United States. They are all theoretically one people in one political entity but some people are clearly more part of it than others.

I know one woman, 60 years of age, who was refused the right to cross the border to see her doctor. Her blood pressure had risen to 250 over 80, a sign of imminent stroke or worse. A trip to the hospital in Jerusalem would have been a 30-minute trip at most. The next day at 4 a.m., still sick, her head throbbing, her step unsteady, she rose from bed, took a cab as close to the border of Jordan as she could get, then hired a donkey cart to take her and her luggage over the mountain. From there, she walked again until she could hire taxis the rest of the way. She got to the hospital in Jordan at 4 p.m. that afternoon.

The explanation? The justification? Surely security. Maybe because she has been a peace activist for 35 years. Certainly because she falls under the category of potential "terrorist," that generic title for those peace-loving people unfortunate enough to have been born Arab.

During those moments at the checkpoint I saw around me what "indignity," what "dehumanization," really means. An entire people have been made collectively guilty of the sins of two governments.

I've prayed the psalms every day for the greater part of my life. I confess that they have always been a metaphor to me. Now I've been to Israel and they have become real. "Depart from evil and do good," Psalm 34 taught me to pray. "Seek peace and pursue it." Nice thought. But up close and personal these days it's hard to believe it's happening. Except for one thing. I had also seen one burning glimmer of hope.

Yes, I could feel my own jaw tightening as I got closer to the young soldier, decades my junior, who would decide if I were fit to go on my way or would be left in Ramallah indefinitely to reflect on my sin of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the truth is that in this same trip I had also met Israelis -- more than 10,000 of them at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, many of them in their own homes, some of them in formal meetings -- who were just as incensed about those checkpoints as their Palestinian sisters and brothers. The holy soul of Israel lives in them. The memory and learning of the Exile lives in them.

From where I stand, I am convinced that they, "seeking peace and pursuing it," are the answer to the future for Israelis and Palestinians. The next time I recite Psalm 34, I'll be praying for Israelis and Palestinians, for Isaac and Ishmael. They both need all the support they can get.

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