On Walls, Stones, Slings, and Olive Wood: A plea for peace for the Holy Land

Two boys walk down a street in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 2000. Photo credit: Becky Roesler

Dr. Rebecca Roesler is a Professor of Violin and Music Education at Brigham Young University–Idaho. She received a PhD in Music and Human Learning from the University of Texas at Austin, and Bachelors and Masters degrees from Brigham Young University. Becky has presented at national conferences in music education, and at the Mormon Studies Association, the Book of Mormon Studies Association, and she has published in Dialogue. Her latest publication in Psychology of Music presents her research in collaborative problem-solving within music ensembles.

I stare across my living room at the olive wood sculpture I purchased from Omar over two decades ago. I am still captured by its swirling, circling, compressed topographical lines, the tightness of the grain. I believe no wood on earth quite matches olive wood in beauty and complexity. It appears as tortured as its land of origin, home to people and peoples living on top of one another, tightly, in conflict, each claiming the same hill as theirs. Their history, their identity, their religion. Even if this wood is as old as some olive trees can be, it would have seen few lasting periods of human peace in its lifetime. 

I was lucky. When I was there, it appeared peaceful. Jubilant, even.

It did not last. And, as I have come to understand from colleagues who teach peacebuilding, that “peace” could not last, as long as human rights violations persisted unchecked.

The past week has been accompanied by vignettes of memories. Over the last two decades similar recollections have been sparked by a conversation, a scripture passage, a bit of news. But this time, they have flooded in more intensely, and on a grim and blackened canvas—a stark juxtaposition to the expansive adventures of my youth:

Catching a sherut at dawn from the Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem with 3 strangers who (bless them) translated to the driver the destination of a helpless wide-eyed inexperienced North Dakotan 20-yr-old;

Awakening daily at 4am to the calls-to-prayer (adhan) emanating from the nearest mosques, echoing off the Mount of Olives;

Pushing through the bustling sidewalks with friends to head to Aladdin’s (prounounced Ah-lah-deen, the jolly money changer who loved BYU students), or to “Joseph Smith’s” to try their push-up challenge for a “free” widow’s mite (I was so close), or to the market for the grandest array of gummy-treats on the planet (guarded by an M-16-armed Israeli soldier younger than we were);

Playing the Albinoni Adagio on my violin with the BYU Jerusalem Center organ, while gazing at the glow of an ancient city emanating from above the dusty Kidron Valley;

Reading my mission call in the lush shady area of the Garden Tomb, and looking up to meet a soul-full Slovenian woman across from me;

Taking a stroll on top of the Old City Walls, where we could see everything inside the walls: shops, people of all creeds crowding past each other through gates, kids playing football (soccer) in a makeshift goal on a small spot of dirt, the blood-stenched meat market; and everything outside the walls: Mount Scopus (and our balcony at the center), the drab Old Citadel (then) filled with bright colorful Chihuly glass balls and glinting glass sculpture towers, the cemetery stretching beyond the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, and haunting gaping Golgotha;

Venturing beyond the stone-walled ancient Old City into Israeli West Jerusalem—another country only minutes away, with its wealth, modern skyscrapers, and manicured streets;

Overlooking the Shephelah and attempting to hurl even just one of my 5 stones from my “handcrafted” sling into David and Goliath’s valley of Elah (I succeeded in hitting myself squarely between the eyes);

Hearing a mother or aunt greeting a young child in a stroller in Hebrew motherese (“Boker tov! Boker tov!”) while I happened by their sun-washed hut at Ein Gev, a kibbutz on the shores of Chinneroth (Galilee);

Singing to a crying child in my arms at a Palestinian children’s hospital in East Jerusalem a few steps from the BYU center. Every time I sang, he calmed. Every time I stopped, he cried;

The Rabbi who led us in a Passover Seder dinner as we overlooked the Dome of the Rock on Mount Moriah, the traditional location of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son;

Passing through the once-quiet nondescript tunnels of the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque, within and on the Temple Mount, where a recorded attempted mob attack on Jesus took place, and a site that has since seen violence to Muslim worshippers;

Our professor of Arab studies, a Palestinian man whom I believe Mormon would describe as having a “peaceable walk” (Moroni 7:3-4)—and his soft-spoken prophetic words in broken English regarding the then-ongoing summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders: “We have everything to gain, and everything to lose. If they succeed, we stand to achieve a lasting peace. If they fail, we will see more continued rounds of violence and killing.”

That was July 2000.

Yesterday I sent the following letter:

Dear President Biden, Secretary Blinken, and Members of Congress:

I have been sick as I’ve watched the situation in the Middle East unfold and escalate. I lived in Jerusalem in my 20’s and grew to love many Palestinian and Israeli civilians there. They were beautiful, peaceable people. I am shocked and horrified by the killing of these innocents, but even more sickened by the response of this administration. Please do not blindly support Israel with no questions asked; you must know that the situation is incredibly complex and volatile. Do not sell weapons to Israel, and please encourage both sides to seek a diplomatic and peaceful solution. Please use the weight of your power and influence (and you have a great deal of it) to encourage a cease fire—an end to killing innocents—rather than an escalation by providing more weapons to either side. Do not look the other way as war crimes and human rights violations take place over and over.

Please, instead of continuing to inflame the conflict, seek peace.

I look forward to hearing your response on this matter.

Sincerely,

RR.

I don’t know where Omar is now. Or Muhammed, the child I held at the hospital; or the nurses who cared for him. I hope they are safe. More, I hope they somehow, someday experience true, just, sustainable peace.

Footnote

Amnesty International has called for the following:

  • “We urge the Administration and the State Department to:
  • Stop U.S. arms sales to Israel and support a UN Security Council-imposed arms embargo on Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups with the aim of preventing further serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights by the parties to the conflict
  • Demand Israel cease the illegal forced evictions of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and other areas of the occupied Palestinian territories
  • Strongly and publicly condemn and call for an end to the brutal and repressive tactics used by Israeli police to quell largely peaceful demonstrations
  • Hold Israel accountable for the illegal and disproportionate use of force and collective punishment by its military in Gaza that has indiscriminately killed civilians, including children, and the raid of Al-Aqsa and brutalizing of worshippers and unarmed protestors by Israeli police
  • Call for an independent investigation into human rights violations and war crimes committed in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories by all actors
  • Continue to condemn indiscriminate rocket fire by Palestinian armed groups into population centers in Israel, and recognize that this does not justify Israel’s targeting of civilians and civilian objects
  • Call on protesters to cease targeting houses of worship, both mosques and synagogues, and for the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas to urge an immediate end to the mob violence taking place in Israeli cities
  • Review US security assistance, including military aid, training, and other support. Conduct a thorough review, pursuant to the Leahy Laws, of the use of US-manufactured weapons in committing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law

People in the U.S. and all over the world are watching in horror at the violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. There is no time to waste.”

Comments

  1. anitacwells says:

    As a fellow Jerusalem alum, I echo your thoughts and prayers, and applaud your letter. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem–the plea of Psalm 122 echoes across millennia

  2. dortner1 says:

    The situation in Israel and Palestine is complex, but on this topic Amnesty International is not a neutral or objective source, not even close. Their strong anti-Israel bias is well known. I would be very reluctant to take their word on anything related to this topic.

  3. Anthony says:

    Thank you for this post. My BYU Arabic study abroad in 2013 exposed me to the Arab world. If you want an interesting experience, talk to Mormon Palestinians and ask them how they feel about the state of Israel. It was eye opening for me. My heart hurts for the Palestinian people. I do think that there needs to be a robust conversation within the church regarding the plight of Palestinians. I think folks in the church generally regard the state of Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy and they either think of Palestinians as a nuisance or disregard them entirely. Because they believe Israel is fulfilling the promises, many church members don’t pay attention to the repression, expulsion, subjugation, and persecution of Palestinians. And that seems incredibly antithetical to the teachings of Jesus as found in the New Testament.

  4. Brent P says:

    Former BYU Jerusalem alum. Plus I intended in Ramallah for a summer. Well-written. Thanks for this. My heart goes out to the victims of violence whether they be Arab or Jewish. Most victims are Arabs. Israel bears a huge responsibility for this.

    Unfortunately in the US, people have loud opinions on the conflict without even knowing what it’s about. Europe and the West have long had an obsession with Jerusalem without even knowing much about the city or the people who live there. Crusades lasted for centuries. Napoleon revived the Crusader spirit when he invaded Egypt in 1799. Britain and France secretly plotted how to divvy up the so-called “Holy Land” during WWI with Britain seizing Jerusalem as a prize possession after the war. By then non-Jewish white Europeans and white Americans had no desire to actually to migrate and dwell among darker skinned people whom they considered inferior, especially because so many were Muslims. But large numbers of white Ashkenazi Jews did have a desire to inhabit the so-called “Holy Land” and the West has essentially governed Jerusalem by proxy through Ashkenazi Jews, who have been heavily reliant on Britain and the US, ever since.

    Although Arab states have long been resistant to recognizing Israel, this has recently begun to change, with many key Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has long recognized Israel as legitimate. The onus is now squarely on the Israeli government to recognize the totality of Palestinian Arabs as legitimate people, worthy of equal rights and freedoms be it through granting them an independent country with fair boundaries where they can actually develop a viable economy, or by integrating them all into the state of Israel as Israeli citizens with equal rights.

    Gaza and the West Bank are essentially Israel and have been since 1967. In light of that I’m pro-Israel. What that means is I’m in favor of an Israel that grants full freedom and equal treatment to all under its control. What we’re witnessing isn’t an international conflict, it is a civil war, and a war that could easily end if Israeli government stopped letting itself be controlled by a small minority of extremist racist Jews. Most Jews are good people. But the racists among them, much like racists in other communities, are not.

  5. Geoff-Aus says:

    I don’t see there being peace between palestine and israel until the corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu is replaced by someone from the left, who will be willing to respect the Palestinians, and negotiate in good faith.

    It is being pointed out here that the Isralies have attacked the press in palestine, so their plight can not be reported.

    At least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and 39 women, with 1,910 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl, were killed. An indication of the inequality of power, and lack of justice. When a palestinian throws a stone it is answered by a bullet or an airstrike.

    America should withdraw support from Israel until there is a two state solution, and then half the support go directly to palestine.

    It appears Pres Biden has persusded Netanyahu, for now.

    Pleased that the BYU centre seems to be having a positive effect on members understanding of the situation.

  6. Brent P says:

    Jonathan, so far 10 Jews have been killed by Hamas missile attacks and 212 Palestinian Arabs have been killed by Israeli air strikes. I condemn the Hamas missile attacks (I also condemn Hamas as a dangerous terrorist group, but not all Palestinians support Hamas or are in control of them launching missile attacks), but Palestinians are simply the greater victims here. Not to mention how Israel has suffocated Gaza and forced it into economic penury for decades. They’ve stripped Gazans of basic freedoms for years. I have strong reason to believe that Palestinian support for Hamas will recede even more once Israel lets up on its oppression of them.

  7. Geoff-Aus says:

    Jonathan. Fact a group of muslims come out of their mosque after prayer and are are attacked by Israeli soldiers before the ceasefire. Jews believe in an eye for an eye. In israels case a stone for a bullet, a rocket that gets through their defence, deserves an airstrike. They have all the power and their corrupt PM is trying to form government with an extreme right militant group. This was partly to impress them. None of the more moderate parties will form government with him because he is so oppressive of the palistinians.
    I think elections are due on the palistinian side too.
    It is good Biden told Netinyahu to stop, now he has to threaten to withdraw all aid till there is a two state solution. He is not negotiating in toward a just solution, just an isreali win. An eye for an eye, operated by a bully.

  8. There would be peace tomorrow if the Palestinians stopped fighting and laid down their weapons. Israel would be annihilated if it stopped fighting and laid down their weapons. Also, one government is trying to abide by its own rules of democracy and allow its citizens a say in how the government should be operated. How many elections has Israel had in the last few years? Compare that to how long has it been since the Palestinians had a chance to elect a government. Why is all this happening now, so soon after a new U.S. Presidential administration? Why didn’t this aggression appear after Trump recognized the capital of Israel and move the embassy there? Why not right after the announcement of the Abraham Accords?

    Trump may have done something good in the middle east, but partisans are still blinded by their rage that he legit won the election in 2016.

  9. Geoff-Aus says:

    Jonathon, If you think Britebart is a reliable source of information it explains why you spread hate and lies.
    Mark L, Does ir really make sense to you that people you disagree with are motivated by rage at trump. Had he stolen the election in 20 there would be rage. That he won in 16 is accepted by most as democracy in action, and a moral deficit in those who voted for him.

  10. Brent P says:

    Mark L, “There would be peace tomorrow if the Palestinians stopped fighting and laid down their weapons”

    Palestinian leaders have tried on many occasions to negotiate diplomatically with Israel about the future of the Palestinian state and rights under occupation. Radical Jewish groups have long been an impediment to progress. Since 1967 Israel has been an incredibly oppressive force on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. I condemn all violence. But demonstrations, protests, strikes, and other non-violent forms of protest are perfectly justified considering how oppressive Israel has been against Palestinians. Palestinians have suffered far, far more from Israeli violence against them than Israelis have suffered from Palestinian attacks. Israel has killed more people, imprisoned more, destroyed more property, and imposed poverty and suffering on Palestinians in forms of collective punishment against Palestinians.

    “Israel would be annihilated if it stopped fighting and laid down their weapons”

    No one is expecting Israel not to have a military. The issue is how Israel uses that military. And Israel has been persistently oppressive and over-the-top. Israel is pretty close to an apartheid state. This is not a tolerable form of existence for Palestinians. Plus consider the fact that Gamal Abd el-Nasser, the most charismatic and unifying force among Arabs who even attempted to unify all Arab countries into a single Arab country called the United Arab Republic, could not command enough support to wage a successful war on Israel. The 1967 war was a joke which Israel easily won. Many Arabs may hate Israel, but they 22 Arab countries aren’t coordinated enough nor do they actually have enough willpower to do anything about Israel.

    “Trump may have done something good in the middle east”

    Here I agree. I believe Trump was a failed president. But he had some accomplishments. The Abraham Accords were among these accomplishments. He accomplished this by telling the Arab countries and Israel that they were on their own and pushing a unique policy brand of neo-isolationism. It oddly worked. More Arab countries have sought to normalize relations with Israel than ever before.