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Courage and Compassion in the Holy Land

pat westwater-jong | Israel and Palestine

1. Palestinian shepherds and members of Israeli human rights group, Ta'ayush, in the West Bank village of Um al-Arais: #1: Shepherds, December 2012

Around dawn on Saturday mornings, Israeli members of the human rights group, Ta'ayush, (and sometimes Internationals) meet in Jerusalem and drive into the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank. Ta’ayush is an NGO of Israelis & Palestinians who work together to end the Israeli occupation and to achieve full civil equality through daily non-violent direct-action. I joined them one Saturday to visit the Palestinian shepherd village of Um al-Arais in Area C in the West Bank. As we hiked way up to the shepherds' tents that make up the small village we passed these shepherds and their sheep - an ancient bucolic sight and way of life, which Israeli and Palestinian activists are struggling to protect.

Courage and Compassion in the Holy Land is my project of photographs and stories of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others who work nonviolently for dignity, human rights, and safety for everyone in Israel and Palestine – regardless of religions or nationalities. Racism, oppression, and violence hurt everyone – Israeli soldiers kidnap Palestinian youth from their beds in the middle of the night and take them to interrogation; the Israeli state confiscates farmland from Palestinian villages - many farmers can no longer grow food for their families; and in October a Palestinian shot dead two Israelis. Some people drop into denial, depression, or violence; others’ spirits grow strong. Through witness, recording, and research, my project portrays and honors people of courage and compassion working for a just peace for everyone in Israel and Palestine.

In the US, misinformation and fear often pervert understanding and reasonable discussion. This project is an attempt to insert compassion and accuracy into discourse and heal fears that fuel our country’s complicity in the horrors in that sacred land.

Center for Religious Tolerance, Sarasota, FL; Massachusetts Peace Action; Unitarians Universalists for Justice in the Middle East-MA; Jewish Voice for Peace

westwaterp@gmail.com

I have worked on my project, Courage and Compassion in the Holy Land since 2008 – living in Israel and Palestine for about 2 – 3 months/year, almost every year since 2008. Most members of my mother's family are Zionist Jews who live in the US, my father was and his family are Christians – Presbyterians, I think; and I was raised and still am Unitarian Universalist. The conflicts regarding this subject are within me, my family, and in this place where I have chosen to work for the past 8 years. This project is personal and political and spiritual – I am challenged to seek the truth, to remain objective, not take photos to prove a point. I am challenged to seek and see the sacred in every person, even those who commit acts of violence – regardless of their religion or nationality. And when my heart is so burdened by brutal violence that I approach despair - the people i witness and photograph, who consistently and continuously year after year, work to uphold the decency of every human being – inspire me.

My work as a mental health counselor in a psychiatric hospital; as a psychotherapist; a university instructor/facilitator of teambuilding and leadership and problem solving skills, organizational change and community building; newspaper staff photographer and event photographer; and my volunteer prison work and facilitating an anti-bullying middle school service group –all my apparently disparate work over the years - culminates in this project. I draw on what I have learned in every profession and volunteer effort.

I grew up in the wake of the Holocaust, and in answer to the question of how so many Germans could have followed orders to commit those atrocities, I asked myself if I would have had the courage to resist, to say “no.” I decided that as an American I have a responsibility to pay attention to what my government does in my name with my tax dollars and to criticize my government when we are oppressing and supporting the oppression of people in this country and elsewhere in the world. And I committed myself trying to discern and speak the truth. No group, no system, no person can be healthy without openness to critical feedback and a way to make adjustments as it lives and grows – and that includes all governments, including Israel. Protecting Israel from criticism is not helping Israel or Israelis.

In Israel and Palestine, witnessing contradictions to the fears and information I was taught in my youth, have proved many of my past perceptions to be grossly inaccurate. I’ve learned not to make assumptions based on what i’ve been told and that no one group speaks with a single voice - not Israelis, Palestinians, or Americans. I have moved from outrage and anger to deep study, reflection, and action. I refocus by asking myself, am I being honest? What is really happening here? Can i understand and have empathy for everyone? That can be difficult, but I try. How can I be of service? How can I best and most accurately capture and relate in images and in words what I witness and experience?

I think my project benefits from this long term effort. I discover new people and groups and finally get to meet some people I’ve heard about for a years but haven’t met yet, every year. I also keep in touch with and document some people over many years and watch situations deteriorate and deepen my understandings of why. And I benefit from trusting relationships that take years to develop.

Some people may be disturbed by the “lack of balance” between the numbers of photos about people addressing Palestinian pain compared to the number of stories of people addressing Israeli pain. For sure people from both groups have committed terrible violence against people of the other group. And while the injuries and deaths of every person of one faith and nationality are just as important as the suffering of people of any other faith and nationality, the Palestinian people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem live under a brutal military occupation and the Israelis do not. And the Palestinians in Gaza have been suffering from a severe siege – Israel has nearly sealed their borders for many years. If Palestinian fishermen from Gaza venture beyond where the Israeli navy doesn’t want them to fish, even though international law entitles them to many more nautical miles, the Israeli navy will attack them. Imports and exports from Gaza have been severely restricted – for a while they were not allowed to import chickpeas or chocolate. They have not been allowed to export strawberries, for which Gaza was once famous. The UN has reported that 90% of the water is not safe to drink or even safe for agricultural use. And the UN has declared that by 2020 Gaza will be uninhabitable. So equal attention to the suffering and human rights violations of both groups, and the efforts to overcome them, wouldn’t be logical or result in an accurate portrayal of the situation - similar to how "Black Lives Matter" addresses the unfair and brutal treatment of our black citizens.

But most importantly – the foci of this project are those people who engage in grassroots efforts to understand each other, who meet with members of the other group to dispel fears and stereotypes, and those who engage in nonviolent efforts to stop the Israeli government, military, or settlers, from taking more Palestinian land, uprooting more Palestinian trees, and from taking more Palestinian youth from their beds in the middle of the night to be interrogated, sometimes for days – without even the presence of a friendly adult. These Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Christians and others, also try to stop home evictions and demolitions and legally represent Palestinians who have been imprisoned without being charged of a crime, create films and music and other kinds of art to express and inform people about the crimes and conditions of the Occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the siege of Gaza.

While I still wrestle with many questions over there and over here, I am clear that there can be no peace or decent future for any group, without a better system of justice and a culture of acknowledging the humanity of every person, where every person has a right to due legal process, control over her/his land and freedom of movement, so each person can live with dignity. I am more grateful than I can express, for the honor and privilege of witnessing and documenting these people of extraordinary courage and compassion and integrity, who against fierce odds and obstacles, do their quiet work week after week, year after year. They ask in return, that I tell the truth as I see it, especially to my fellow Americans. This project is my attempt to do that.

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