Given that it is Christmas Eve and I have been living in the Holy Land, I am coming to feel a little bit bad about the dark and depressing subject matter that my blog has contained. This material has, to the best of my ability, been accurate and faithful to the experiences and perceptions that I have had over the last few months. Yet, during this present season of hope, I long to send something a bit more encouraging and a bit more uplifting.
While this is a harsh land, wrought with conflict and filled with ideologies that identify force and militarization as the way to meet their objectives, it is also a surprisingly abundant and fruitful land. It is a sort of crucible, boiling people down to their core essence, revealing what is at their heart. For some, the ravages of communal pain, personal anger, and injustice rise up in tragic ways. For others, remarkable courage, faith and forgiveness emerge in such abundance and clarity that the humanity behind them becomes luminary. So today, I want to share the story of two brothers who fall in this second category.
Daher and Daoud Nasser grew up on a beautiful farm in the countryside just outside of Bethlehem, which their grandfather had purchased in 1916. They enjoyed warm times there as a family, learning how to care for land and plants and animals, and enjoying evenings under starry skies hearing their grandfather tell stories beside a campfire. As adults, the responsibility of the farm was passed to them, to continue caring for this land responsibly and to make a good and honorable life upon it.
In 1991, these brothers received word that three quarters of their land (the most desirable parts on the hilltop) was slated to be confiscated by the state of Israel in order to allow for the expansion of an illegal settlement in the area. In general, relatively few Palestinians have paperwork or titles to their land since their families have farmed these lands continuously for generations and such documents were perceived as unnecessary until very recently. Daher and Daoud are exceptions though as their grandfather was a meticulous man and kept careful records, verifying that their family purchased the land and owned it under the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate years, the Jordanian rule, and through the present.
In most countries, people who are presently farming the land and in possession of such documents would have no issue continuing forward with life as usual. But, in the occupied Palestinian territories, things aren’t quite so easy. The Nasser brothers were told that they must produce these documents along with aerial photographs of the land and have neighbors appear in court vouching that the family has indeed been there as they say they have. At considerably personal expense, Daher and Daoud accomplished all these tasks, having to rent a bus to transport their neighbors to the court to testify on their appointed court date. When they arrived, the court told them they couldn’t see their case and to return again the following week.
The brothers did return, with their neighbors in tow yet again. But, because of pressures from the settlement, the court was not so interested in recognizing them as the landowners. The brothers have remained in a legal battle over the land for the last 19 years. “As Palestinians, we are guilty until proven innocent,” said Daoud, who has been disallowed from constructing any buildings on his family’s land and forbidden from connecting to existing water and electrical networks in the area. In addition to these legal struggles, Settlers have come in the night with dogs and guns, cut their fences, and destroyed many of their olive and apricot trees.
Meanwhile, from their hilltop farm, the Nasser brothers watch as the military supports the settlements as they build all sorts of projects across the valley on land that they possess no title to. Within the last two months, electrical lines were strung up to a new settlement outpost, which has popped up in the midst of field traditionally used by a Palestinian village for agriculture.
From time to time, bulldozers appear and try to construct a road through the midst of Daher and Daoud’s land to connect two of the settlements. This is particularly frustrating given the fact that the main access road to the farm has been barricaded with rubble by the military.
Such frustrations, such powerlessness, such denial of rights to personal property would be enough to make most people become embittered and perhaps even violent. But Daoud and Daher are not most people. Reaching deep into their Christian faith, these brothers identified a different path; a path based on forgiveness, the valuing of all people, and the belief that out of nothing, God can bring new and abundant life.
To begin walking this path, these brothers and their families initiated a camp for young people. There, they bring together Israelis, Palestinians, and Internationals; Muslims, Jews, and Christians to “come to see each other as human beings.” They participate in art projects, recreation, classes about stewardship of land, dialogue, and yes, sitting around a campfire late at night sharing stories. At the entrance to their farm and this camp, a large rock is proudly engraved, “We Refuse to be Enemies.”
In spite of their building restrictions, the Nasser brothers seek to model for these youth that “out of nothing, you can create something.” Since they can’t build above the ground, they have taken ancient caves and outfitted them as classrooms, meeting spaces, and even a small theater. Since they can’t connect to electric grids, they have focused on green energy and, with help from some international groups, have installed solar panels for basic electricity. For sleeping, they have erected two very large tents, which I’m proud to say were donated by a group of Presbyterians. These tents tie into the name of their organization, “The Tent of Nations,” and they use them provide shelter, hospitality, and bridges of understanding for people from every nation (www.tentofnations.org). Regrettably, the Israeli army has issued a demolition order on these tents, so they may have to find some other creative alternatives for housing their guests.
Picture: Daher pointing to a mural constructed out of "broken rubbish" scrap tiles by young people during camp. The Arabic writing is Psalm 133, "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity..."
While politics and policies continue to squeeze and restrict this farm, it persists in witnessing to higher standards and deeper connections between people. Daoud shared several experiences with me of Settlers who have in various ways tried to push them from this land. One set came with guns to try to intimidate him into selling his property. He asked them to leave their guns outside and instead come and sit down for tea. It led to conversation and a degree of respect that has reduced many tensions and deterred the Settler community from destroying any more of the farm’s fruit trees.
Another Settler who came initially to the farm in a confrontational fashion was so struck by the family’s unwillingness to engage him as an enemy and their surprising welcome that he returned with a group to help build four composting toilets for the farm so that they could better host groups and continue building bridges.
These stories, and many others of healing and hope, have emerged out of the perseverance of this family that refuses to be enemies. For me, during this season of incarnation, this family’s life witnesses to the reality of a God who also refuses to be enemies. They witness to a God who bridges divides, who endures hostility, who refuses to come as a warrior or politician but instead takes on the form of a baby to grow with us and walk along side of us. They witness to a God who, out of dead ends and crucifixions, creates new ways forward and new possibilities for life and life abundant. They witness to a God who provides redemption rather condemnation.
Here in Bethlehem, just as all over the globe, God’s Spirit is at work providing new and startling ways forward through the difficulties of our harsh world. This Christmas, just as every day, may that same Spirit be born again in us and lead us forward in hope, down new and life giving paths.