National Lutheran News

Minnesota Lutherans help harvest Holy Land olives, speak out for justice

Carolyn Schurr, Minneapolis, and Bruce Burnside, Madison, Wisconsin, center, spoke to an American Jew in Jerusalem.

Carolyn Schurr, Minneapolis, and Bruce Burnside, Madison, Wisconsin, center, spoke to an American Jew in Jerusalem.

Fourteen of us spent two weeks in November visiting the Holy Land. All but three of the 14 are Lutheran and 10 are Minnesotans. We had numerous opportunities to meet with Palestinian Lutherans and to see ministries supported by the international Lutheran community. Our reasons for going were three. We wished to accompany Palestinians as they harvested their olives in the shadow of hostile Israeli settlements. We wanted to meet with both Israelis and Palestinians who are working for a just peace. And we hoped to show church people there that not all U.S. believers are Christian Zionists endorsing the oppressive policies of the Israeli government.

International Olive Pickers

The olive-harvest campaign was organized by the International Solidarity Movement, a coalition of non-governmental agencies
supporting the right of Palestinians to harvest their olives.Palestinian olives traditionally are turned into oil, which is lifeblood for the economy of many Palestinian farmers. But increasingly in recent years, Israelis who have illegally colonized land near the olive groves are disrupting the harvesting. Olive trees have been uprooted, olives have been confiscated, and Palestinian harvesters have been physically barred from entering their groves.The Israeli occupying military is supposed to defend the rights of the olive growers, but often sides with the settlers instead.

So we were part of an international presence, working alongside Palestinian olive pickers and prepared to be a non-violent buffer between the farmers and the Israeli settlers. Our group experienced no unpleasantness, thankfully, though other internationals working near us did have confrontations while harvesting.

Our confrontation came a couple days after we beganolive-picking, and it was with the Israeli Occupying Force. In Jayyus, a West Bank village about 15 miles west of Nablus, internationals joined Palestinians to protest Israel’s construction of a wall. Israel claimed it was being built for security reasons.

But the wall near Jayyus is sited several miles inside the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine, and its construction has the effect of stealing much fertile farm land, water, and olive groves from the Palestinians.

A couple hundred Palestinians and internationals together one morning protested at a site where bulldozers were working to clear land for the wall. Our demonstration disrupted the bulldozer work but was non-violent. When we did not disperse, the Israeli military tear-gased us and arrested 10 who did not run from the gas. Three were Americans, one a member of our group, a United Methodist pastor from Yakima, Washington. He was held in an Israeli prison for four days without charge, then released.

Our experience with the Palestinian villagers gave flesh to the reality that, throughout Palestinian territory and in clear violation of international law, Israelis are building colonies and seeking to displace Palestinians from their land. Via our heavy subsidy of the Israeli government ($4 billion a year), we American taxpayers help finance that colonization.

The story of Naboth’s vineyard in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Kings 21) comes to mind. The powerful (Israel’s rulers Jezebel and Ahab) confiscate the property of the powerless (the small farmer Naboth). Pastor Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem writes about such robbery in his 1995 Fortress book, “I Am a Palestinian Christian”:

“Israel, with its plan to dispossess Palestinians of their land…, is in the tradition of Jezebel…not in the tradition of the God of Israel….[Israel’s] policy could be likened to whoring around with other gods. It is a regression into Canaanite customs, where the desires of the state know no bounds and the laws are bent accordingly.”

Israeli Dissenters Our second week was given largely to visits with Palestinian church leaders and Israeli peace activists. We were pleased to learn how many Israelis are in vigorous opposition to the occupation policies of their government, a fact that receives little attention in the U.S. media. Among the Israeli groups working for a just peace:

* Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, which seeks to stop destruction of Palestinian homes and rebuild those that are destroyed. It is headed by Jeff Halper, a Jew who is a native of Hibbing, Minnesota.

* Rabbis for Human Rights. They, along with many other Israelis, were personally present with Palestinians in the olive-harvest campaign.

* B’Tselem, the Israeli Center on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which seeks to document for the world community the ongoing violations of Palestinian rights.

* Joint Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. This is the Women in Black group, who’ve held a public vigil at a West Jerusalem square every Friday noon for the past two decades. Counterpart vigils are held each Friday in cities around the world, including St. Paul (corner of Snelling and University).

It’s simply wrong to assume that all Israelis favor keeping Palestinians subservient, either by an oppressive occupation that is now 35 years old or by removal (ethnic cleansing). Many Israeli Jews favor a much different policy by their government and couragously act on their convictions.

Our meetings with Palestinian church leaders were rewarding as well. We were moved by their unwavering commitment to hope. One of them told us that Christian hope has become the central theological virture for them. “We take mild exception to St. Paul when he writes in 1st Corinthians 13 that among faith, hope, and love the greatest is love,” he said. “For us, the greatest of these is hope; it’s all that keeps us going.”

Instead of Christian Zionism

Both the Israeli peace people and the Palestinians were grateful for our visit. The Palestinian Christians especially are pleased when U.S. Christians show up to be with them. They are deeply offended by the stream of Christian Zionists who continue to flow into their midst, never meet with indigenous Christians, and loudly proclaim their support of a

Holy Land for Jews only

The Palestinians find U.S. government support of Israeli government policies despicable, and contrary to our own principles of justice and democracy. They are dumbfounded when American citizens, most notably the Christian right but many others as well, champion such policies.They urgently asked that we return home, work to change those policies, recruit other groups of Christians to visit, and keep them always in the prayers of our congregations and ourselves.