Victim. Villain. Where’s the hero?

As we sat in one of the many modern, wood-paneled, freshly cooled lecture halls of the Mamila Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel, listening in rapt attention to details of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps all 26 of the Hispanic leaders present realized that the Middle Eastern experience wasn’t far from our own stories as Latin Americans in the United States.

During our recent visit to Israel, we came to understand the different groups that are shaping Middle Eastern culture, what drives those groups and where there are (if any) places of convergence within those groups.

From our two-week stay in Israel, I learned that it didn’t matter who we spoke to – Israelis or Palestinians – Middle Easterners were, in large part, disenchanted with the United States.

Sunni Arabs’ perception of the United States is more closely connected to the Iranian Shiite role. Many believe that while the United States could have done something to alleviate the Syrian civil war and ensuing massacre, it has chosen to do nothing.

I, a Dominican-American from New York City, tried to soak up as much as I could about a region’s age-old history in two weeks. Much of this is a passerby’s impressions and reflections. Take it with a grain of salt, but take it nonetheless.

Most insightful, perhaps, was learning about both the Israeli and the Palestinian way of thinking and, as a result, being.

The Israeli-Palestine Mindset

On the Palestinian side:

The feelings of frustration and bitterness are triggered by a warped sense of justice, which then fuels vengeance. It’s seems to hardly be about desiring true peace. I should probably qualify what I mean by true peace. In simple terms, it is a desire and pursuit of physical, emotional, relational and spiritual completeness. We’ve heard it said that peace isn’t the absence of conflict. And I would add that it is life lived in such a way that even conflict is used for the good and harmony of the relationships involved.

Peace seems to involved two things: the removal of attitudes and behaviors that encourage division, and the wholehearted pursuit of harmony and the goodwill of the other.

During my time in the Middle East, the Palestinians, in large part, didn’t seem to want either of the ingredients for peace. They appeared to have hard exteriors and hard interiors.

We must sympathize with the Palestinians. After sitting in several lectures about and hearing stories from both sides of the tension, I realized that for Palestinians, the conflict with Israel is more about punitive action than it is about restoring the relationship with their neighbors. As Israeli-Arab journalist and filmmaker Khaled Abu Toameh said, “The Palestinian conflict with Israel is more about hating Israel than it is about achieving Palestinian good.”

In fact, Toameh went on to ask a deeply poignant (and self-assessing) question: “Why have peace efforts fallen desperately short in all our talks?

“Two deeply inescapable reasons,” he continued. “For starters, there is a significant deficit about peace with Israel.” There seems to be an underlying message of hostility that is woven into the fabric of Palestinian life, and propagated by Palestinian leaders.

When people are repeatedly told the same story and message and are educated on conflict only, those individuals will never see peace as the logical (even more, inspired) option.

“Secondly” Toameh said, “there has always been a shortage of competent leadership.” This is a prime example of narrative control – perhaps no different than what we often see stateside when it comes to White European narrative in America continually being held up as the prominent and most important story, while others are set off to the margins.

On the Israeli side:

In nearly all of our interactions with Israeli neighbors, lecturers and peace negotiators, the posture was mostly one of the victim who has been displaced. While some made statements along the lines of, “Surely we play a part in all this,” that was rarely qualified or elaborated upon.

Although they are the majority, the Israelis’ language and posture is informed by anxiety. There is a sense that they live as a minority; as a target.

Impressions Of a Hero

Often in conflict, we see ourselves as enemies fighting against each other, which is understandable. But throughout our time in Israel, there were pockets of light shining through all of the deep conflict.

Among those shimmers of positivity were David Nekrutman and Pastor Steven, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Christian Arab, respectively. Their friendship was not only enlightening, but also a breath of fresh air.

They were brought in to give us a lecture on how to approach the Palestinian-Israeli (and even the Christian-Jew) relationship. Quite frankly, it felt less like a lecture and more like watching two friends pull the curtain back on what a true reconciled relationship between two perceived enemies could look like.

Rabbi Danny and Pastor Steven
David Nekrutman and Pastor Steven

Here were some takeaways from our time together:

Be an advocate of the other side.

Don’t tell victims that they are not victims. Then they become the victim twice.

Recognize that both sides might be both victims and villains.

There is a difference between justice and fairness. Justice is not a result. It’s an orientation. Justice is pursued, not achieved.

Justice misunderstood only produces more injustice.

Justice must be framed within reality.

Don’t have too much empathy. It’s paralyzing, and leaves no room for forward movement.

There is perhaps no picture of empathy, compassion and peacemaking more vivid than of Jesus at the cross.

Both of these groups feel marginalized and attacked by the other. Both feel a deep sense of anxiety, fear, anger and bitterness toward the other. Both deeply desire justice – an acknowledgment that they have been wrong and a restoration of what has been taken from them.

At the cross, Jesus embodied marginalization by being crucified, which was a most heinous and shameful way of death. And even more, he was crucified “outside of the city of Jerusalem.” In the margins of Roman society.

At the cross, Jesus took up our hate, anger, hurt and fears and killed them there, “disarming [them] and putting them to open shame, by triumphing over them in it.”

At the cross, as he suffered and took on the full weight of all our sins, Jesus offered words of invitation and reconciliation when he very well could have responded as we often do when we are hurt and betrayed. He said, “Father forgive them.”

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After studying film in the City College of New York and Biblical Theology at Elim Bible Institute, Rich has committed to discovering the faithful marriage between those two passions. Through a variety of speaking experiences, Rich has grown into a unique storyteller and thought-leader in faith, family, the arts and the Hispanic-American experience. In 2012, Rich and his family led a team of friends into his hometown and started a church that would embrace the very values they lived with. Rich is the lead pastor of Christ Crucified Fellowship in NYC, where he lives with his wife and kids.