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Courage and Compassion in the Holy Land

pat westwater-jong | Palestine and Israel

1) Palestinian shepherds in the West Bank village of Um al-Arais and members of Israeli human rights group, Ta'ayush: #1 Shepherds, soldiers, and Ta’ayush activists October 2016

Around dawn on Saturday mornings, Israeli members of the human rights group, Ta'ayush, (and sometimes internationals) meet in Jerusalem and drive into the West Bank. Ta’ayush is an NGO of Israelis and Palestinians who work together to stop settlers from harassing Palestinians and soldiers from demolishing their homes. They also help rebuild demolished homes and provide evidence of illegal settlement building to be used in court.

On this day, members of Ta’ayush visited the Palestinian Bedouin shepherd village of Um al-Arais in Area C in the West Bank. In this photo, you’re looking down from a Bedouin hilltop to a field and then up to the opposing hilltop where Israeli settles have located their outpost. The settlers plowed the field in an effort to claim it. This is happening across the West Bank.

Courage and Compassion in the Holy Land is my documentation of the Israelis and Palestinians who work nonviolently for dignity and safety for everyone. Some Israeli soldiers take Palestinian youth from their beds in the middle of the night for interrogation, Israeli military and settlers have confiscated most of the farmland and water in many Palestinian villages, and some Palestinian youth throw stones at Israeli soldiers. Some people drop into denial, depression, or violence - others’ spirits grow strong. Through witness and research, my project portrays, honors, and supports peacemakers and activists.

Here in the US, misinformation and fear often prevent reasonable thinking and discussion. Through the photos and stories of the people I document, I attempt to insert compassion and reality into our discourse and heal fears that fuel our nation’s complicity in the horrors committed in the Holy Land.

My deep appreciation to Noble Larson and Rasha Mahmoud who had the patience with me and dedication to this issue that enabled them to listen to my struggles to be as accurate as possible and to write my truth as clearly as possible - somemtimes moving on, even if it didn't seem quite "perfect."

"Post truth"? The summer of Watergate I was in college. I watched President Richard Nixon on the large screen in the Student Union, usually reserved for sporting events. He declared, “ I am not a crook.” Everyone laughed. How terribly sad. Our president was such a liar that his claims that he wasn’t, elicited laughter. JFK. Viet Nam. WMD in Iraq. A minority of brave Senators in September 2002 stood up and said they could not vote to give President Bush and VP Cheney permission to attack Iraq because the “evidence” presented was not compelling. Who among the Senators believed the evidence and who voted to attack another country because it seemed the best way to get reelected or voted into higher office? Only a few had the courage to discern and speak the truth. None of the mainstream media, that i am aware of, told the truth.The debacle at the NYT is not a reasonable excuse, imho.

At least since I was an adolescent I have been aware that my government is lying to me in ways that are harmful to our country and world. So is some of the mainstream media, but i wasn't aware of the extent. But now the President of the United States, has a more peculiar relationship with “the truth.”

I think a drastic infusion of “truth” is now critical to the survival of the USA - everyone listening to each other's truths and carefully expressing one's own. I think we need to explain, to share, what we see as "true", respectfully to people who disagree with us – not to talk them into our perspectives, but to understand each others perspectives. We need to listen to each other. If we find ways to do that and are open to opinions and facts that we don't think are true, we might discover that somethings we thought were true, are not. We might ask where the “other” got the information they are telling us they base their opinions on. They may ask us the same. If we share our sources of information, we work together to discover which sources we can trust regarding specific subjects and which we cannot. We might challenge mainstream news media to tell the truth in ways they have not and/or support those alternative media whose reporting is more accurate.

Truth vs perception. Is there such a thing as “the truth”?

Imagine a table with a giant pumpkin on top. A group of people on one side of the table describes it, “it looks perfectly ripe and it has a gash that’s pierced the skin."

People on the other side of the table describe the pumpkin this way, “ this pumpkin doesn’t look quite ripe, a few green stripes run from the top down toward bottom. Otherwise it looks perfect.”

Their descriptions are similar, but different – they may be accurately describing their own different perceptions of this pumpkin from their different perspectives.

But if someone said, “that’s not a pumpkin, that’s an orange.” That is simply not true. It is, in fact, a pumpkin. In my time discovering and documenting Israel and Palestine, I’ve heard a lot of people calling "pumpkins," "oranges.” They claim they are describing their perspectives, their “narratives” – and some are. But some of these people and media are not telling the truth.

I grew up believing that after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jewish people needed their own country where they could be safe. Rather recently I concluded that is an oxymoron, depending upon how one defines "Jewish state." If it means allowing one group of people certain civil rights, legal rights, and human rights, while denying the others those rights, based solely upon religion, especially in a country that is sacred to members of multiple religions, how can that not create animosity and worse, against the state and the specially priviledged? How does that effect all the people in that state when children who are not members of the "state religion" live under military occupation laws, whose familieis are not permitted to build on their land, whose homes are invaded in the middle of the night when soldiers take youth away to interrogation and torture them, without any representation and without their families even knowing where they are for days? Without ever being allowed to go to the sea?  Wouldn't such a state be unstable and susceptible to dis-ease, and eventually destruct from outside and/or within.

Growing up with nightmares about the Holocaust I wondered how presumably normal people could be convinced, coerced, into making the Holocaust killing machine. I wondered if I had been there, would I have had the courage to resist? I couldn’t answer that but i knew that understanding and resisting such hatred and violence was my personal life goal. Reading Exodus in 8th grade Algebra class – yielded my only detention in Middle School after I sobbed because a main character was killed. The epic film Lawrence of Arabia swept me away into the shimmering desserts, riding a carpet of enchanting music. Both films fueled my ache for justice and for everyone to be “free,” but I couldn’t connect the two stories.

Living on a Kibbutz for a month in 1985 raised some questions about life in Israel. Were our Kibbutz parents racist regarding the Palestinians? Certainly they were fearful. In 2008 I returned to Israel and to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Sderot, bordering Gaza. What I saw turned my head inside out - grabbed my heart and won't let go. I realized I had not been taught the truth about Israel and Palestine. I watched, listened, asked questions and documented everyone who seemed to me to be engaged in the noble work of telling the truth, of stopping terrible and cruel actions against people ostensibly because of their nationality and religion - people working for justice, for fairness. The photos and stories in my project, Courage and Compassion in the Holy Land is an outcome of my quest for truth and my small contribution to a more accurate understanding of Israel and Palestine, so every person there can live with respect and dignity. And so my country will support justice and human rights for everyone there and will be a positive influence on Israel, Palestine, and the whole region.

Center for Religious Tolerance, Sarasota, FL; Human Rights Awareness: Palestine Israel; Unitarians Universalists for Justice in the Middle East; Massachusetts Peace Action; Jewish Voice for Peace;

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