There is no place in the world where people live constantly with pressure and fear the way they do in Israel and Palestine. Hardly a week goes by that there's not an incident or a governmental action that draws our attention there.
You cannot visit Israel without having profound respect for the optimism of its people, who simply build for a better future despite the constant challenge and threats that surround them.
I visited Israel and Palestine for 10 days in May of 2005, hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land. Because a number of good friends in the Philadelphia Jewish community were concerned that I did not get a balanced experience, I was invited to visit Israel a second time in February of this year, traveling there as part of an interfaith mission, made up of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of greater Philadelphia. We were joined by the leadership of JCRC and the Board of Rabbis.
Both of these experiences were profoundly moving for me, but I have tried to resist seeing my time there as anything more than one individual's exposure to a complex reality. Still, no one can visit this place without being profoundly moved.
As a Lutheran Christian, I feel a sense of solidarity with my brothers and sisters of the church, people who are suffering greatly as a result of the many disruptions that are a part of Israeli occupation. I also understand that Christian Palestinians have an added burden of being somewhat suspect by their Muslim neighbors, whose religious fervor, aroused against Israel, can easily be directed against them.
Both of my visits have clearly enhanced my strong appreciation for the State of Israel and the right of its citizens to dwell in peace and security within protected borders and with the appropriate recognition by its neighbors. Along with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I condemn all acts of terror, and understand that no government can maintain its legitimate right to govern if it does not provide for the security of its citizens. I support the position of my church, which has called for investment in Israel and Palestine as the best way to build a viable future.
As one who loves the land that has produced my faith, I am profoundly saddened by the fact that Israel has found no alternative to the erection of the security barrier to prevent terrorist attacks. No one likes the idea of a fence that separates people. I experienced firsthand the terrible disruption that is a painful, humiliating reality for Palestinians every day because of the barrier and the many checkpoints. Yet given the present realities, I see no alternative to this barrier that is preventing the death of innocent people.
As part of our visit, our group spent an evening in conversation with journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi. The launching of the second intifada and the resumption of terrorist bombings convinced Halevi that the barrier was essential. With great emotion, he shared the fact that each day, his children rode the bus to school, his wife went to the market, and he, as a journalist, met people in cafes. They never knew if they would see each other at the end of the day, he told us.
I remain convinced that a way must be found to end the occupation and to allow Palestinians the right to control their own destiny in a state they govern. I commend Israel for its steps to remove illegal settlements and to withdraw its forces from areas like Gaza. I yearn for a day when we will see bridges, not barriers, erected in this holiest of places.
My time spent with Christian Palestinians, who yearn to live in peace, has convinced me that Israel must begin to identify those people within the Palestinian community that can be bridge-builders in a common goal of creating a viable future for everyone. The assumption that all Palestinians are potential terrorists and enemies of peace is simply misguided.
I pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Bishop Roy Almquist represents the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.