In 2008 native Jerusalemite Sahar Vardi had recently graduated from high school. She was 18 years old. And she was in prison. She was being punished for the crime of refusing to be conscripted into the Israeli army.
She articulated her motivation in a letter she wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu, “The bloody cycle in which I live–made up of assassinations, terrorist attacks, bombings, and shootings–has resulted in an increasing number of victims on both sides. It is a vicious circle that is sustained by the choice of both sides to engage in violence. I refuse to take part in this choice.”
I met Sahar in December, 2013, in her capacity as staff for the American Friends Service Committee’s Israel program, working to counter the militarization of Israeli society. I was impressed and fascinated by her analysis of her own culture and the detrimental effect the occupation is having on Israeli society.
So later, when leaders of a trip from White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C. reached out to me to help them meet some local people during their time in Israel-Palestine, I immediately thought of Sahar. She agreed to meet with them and shared with them her motivations for refusing military service, her experience in prison, and her understanding and experience of the militarization of Israeli society.
Sahar also described her understanding of the occupation and why she believes it must end. She told a story of a horse that had gotten ill in a village whose only access point is a road with a checkpoint on it. The soldiers at the checkpoint have a list of every object and person allowed in the village. When the owner brought the horse to the checkpoint on his way home from the vet in Bethlehem, the soldier refused to let the horse through, saying it wasn't on the list.
The villagers had to call an Israeli friend who made calls to the military, and eventually the commander gave the soldier permission to let the horse through.
“This isn’t a tragic story,” Sahar said. “No one was hurt. No one did anything wrong. The soldier was just following orders. But it gives a glimpse of the total control the occupation has over the lives of Palestinians. That was the occupation functioning at its absolute best, and there was still something fundamentally wrong about it.”
By the end of Sahar’s talk, I was left saddened by her picture of the pervasiveness of fear and hostility in Israeli society, but heartened by her commitment to making her country what it could be — an equal and fair society free of all the burdens of war.
Meeting Sahar has helped to humble me about the vastness of knowledge and experience I do not possess around this conflict. It was easy for me to be casual about the significance and difficulty of this move to Israel-Palestine, as it is a move I’ve made twice before. And neither time previously did I have either a salary or a husband.
And true, a lot is familiar — the smell of the spice shops, the sound of the adhan, or call to prayer, the sight of Orthodox Jews, Palestinians, and internationals all trekking around the same streets surrounding the Old City. I remember where to catch the bus, how to engage in the Palestinians’ beloved pleasantries, what to do at checkpoints.
But there is much that remains new and unfamiliar. It is indeed a huge change from our fun and comfortable life in Atlanta. There is so much I never learned or was never exposed to during my previous stays, and there is so much that has happened in this place since I last lived here.
This time I must understand the ongoing politics within Israel and within the Palestinian occupied territories, especially in the midst of Kerry’s peace talks.
This time, I must become familiar with the culture and politics of the various Christian factions here. This time, I must learn what it means to represent the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in this particular place.
Luckily, the timing of a local conference meant that I did not spend my first week blankly looking around figuring out how to get started. From March 10-14 I had the privilege of attending the third biannual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference organized by Bethlehem Bible College.
More than 600 Christians of more than 20 nationalities traveled to the West Bank here to participate alongside local Palestinian Christians. The conference aimed to engage Christian evangelicals on the theology of Christian Zionism, expose them to the daily realities experienced by Palestinian Christians living under Israeli military occupation and challenge them to participate in peacemaking.
This year’s theme, “Your Kingdom Come,” explored how God’s kingdom should look in Israel-Palestine and how conference participants can help make that kingdom a reality. As founding former president of Bethlehem Bible College, Bishara Awad, said during his opening remarks, “The gospel is and should be good news for both Palestinians and Israelis.”
As I begin building relationships with people on all sides of this conflict, Awad’s claim will provide the foundation of my ministry. As God promises in my favorite passage from Isaiah, “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight…no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress (Isaiah 65:18b and 19b).”
Even in the few short weeks I’ve been here, the people I have met have convinced me that God truly is in the midst of this process, guiding and leading all of us to a future of peace and justice for all. Thank you for being a part of that unfolding future as you join in this ministry with me. I am encouraged by your curiosity and concern for the people of Jesus’ birthplace. I am sustained by your prayers. I am grateful for any financial gifts you are able to contribute, for without you there would be no Presbyterian witness in the Holy Land. Thank you for the privilege of serving the Church through connecting it to the place I hold most dear.
The Rev. Kate Taber serves on the ministry team of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. She assists U.S. Presbyterians visiting the Holy Land and facilitates Presbyterian involvement in volunteer opportunities.