OLIVE PICKING ON THE WEST BANK
by Jim Brown
I’m back home after a rewarding, troubling, and strangely hopeful time in the West Bank. One of the days the group I was with picked a thousand pounds of olives, and only one of us fell off a ladder!
Let me say a bit about olives. I knew how important they were to the lives of Palestinians, but when I heard someone share this ancient proverb or teaching I realized how superficial my understanding was. Here’s how Fr. Firas Aridah put it: “When a father was told he had to choose between the life of his son and one of his olive trees, he replied, ‘I’ll need to take some time to think this over.’”
Olives are at the very heart of Palestinian life and culture. I have photographs of kindergarten children learning to crush olives that are then cured and eaten months later. It’s worth noting at the onset that Israeli soldiers and settlers have cut down nearly 700,000 olive trees as they built the Wall and other infrastructure. This is no small matter.
The Joint Advocacy Initiative program of the YM/YWCA of Jerusalem and Beit Sahour has come up with a creative and courageous model of social and political advocacy by seizing on olives as both the symbolic and practical linchpin of Palestinian life. Those of us who were part of this year’s olive picking program worked alongside and under the direction of Palestinian farmers and their families in an act of solidarity as they struggle for justice and elemental fairness.
We made our way by bus to farmers’ fields in the Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala areas. Our hosts were farmers whose livelihood and existence are challenged on a daily basis by the encroachment of settlements, by-pass roads, buffer zones, and arbitrary decisions by the Israeli military who have occupied the West Bank since 1967. There are now over 130 settlements on the West Bank, including large communities around Bethlehem that are usually the ones we read about in the press.
But smaller ones dot the hill tops of the entire region. They are placed by fiat on land often owned by Palestinian families and then the squeeze is on to deprive these farmers of all their land by cutting off access to the fields. In one of the fields in which we worked you could observe three settlements ringing the ridges above us. We were told that the next step will be to connect the three settlements with roads that the farmers will not be allowed to use or cross, with the likely outcome of the taking over of the fields by the settlers.
On several days we had to leave our bus a good distance from the fields and hike in due to fencing and road closures. We observed Israeli military keeping an eye on us and one of our other picking groups was detained for an hour by soldiers. It became clear that the presence of persons like myself with passports from countries around the world kept the military at bay. Without us I fear Palestinian activists would have faced a harsher reality in the fields.
Our gear consisted of buckets and burlap sacks for the olives, tarps to place under the trees, and ladders to use for getting into the higher reaches of the trees. The game plan each day was to strip the olives from the trees onto tarps and then put the olives in buckets which were used to fill the burlap bags. The owners of the fields gave us our marching orders each day and then turned us loose. The basic instruction was to strip the olives from the branches, using our hands the same way you would to milk a goat. I doubt anyone in our group had ever milked a goat, but we all nodded in agreement and went to work.
Lunch was served by the farmers and their families, and usually consisted of rice and chicken, smothered in some of the best yogurt I’ve ever eaten. The lunch period was a joyful time, with the farmers telling a bit about their lives. Palestinians in this dark and dangerous period in their existence display a disarming sense of humor. One day one of our number was walking toward a farmer’s dog with outstretched hands, asking along the way, “What’s your dog’s name.” He was stopped in his tracks by the answer, “Dangerous.” The same farmer pointed to two goats, one sleeping, the other standing. We got the clear message in rudimentary English, “The sleeping one is mean. Don’t wake him up.”
Along with the olive picking I made two trips on my own—one to Beit Omar and the other to Jifna. Beit Omar is the home of dear friends of Market Square Church, Jamal Meqbel and his family. Margee Kooistra met this remarkable Muslim family a number of years ago and a delegation from Market Square had dinner in their home four or five years ago. I took a cab from Beit Sahour and met Jamal in his barber shop. From there we followed a man named Mohammed out into the countryside where the JAI team had planted olive trees in the recent past. Mohammed is a community leader who was delighted to show off these young trees planted along a valley with one of the ubiquitous settlements looming above it. He pointed out that the settlement has no fence around it—and is free to encroach on neighboring land at will with the support of the Israeli soldiers who are everywhere to be seen in the occupied West Bank.
Jamal’s family lived north of Gaza in 1948 and was displaced to Beit Omar without land during the huge dislocation marking the birth of Israel in a land already inhabited by families like Jamal’s. They are not allowed to build legal houses on the small pieces of land that they own, nor to dig wells. Jamal has built a solid house that is now earmarked for demolition along with 30 other houses in their neighborhood. When I asked about water, he said they had dug a small well during the dark of night. So far none of the 31 families have lost their homes, but the threat is constant. Jamal’s wife said during our luncheon conversation that living a good and caring life is the best resistance to occupation, and they are doing this in remarkable ways. Two of their children are first in their classes and they cling to the promise of education leading to a better future.
My second trip was to Jifna, which is a few kilometers from Ramallah. Market Square has a sister church relationship with St. Joseph’s Latin Church, and I was looking forward to meeting the new priest, Fr. Firas Aridah, who like many of the priests on the West Bank is from Jordan. I spent several nights in the rectory and had dinner one evening with the Ghanem family with whom Nina and I had stayed a few years back.
After dinner their son, Anton, got out a map to show me how little of the West Bank was under control of the Palestinians and how worried he was for his future. The Dad has a small factory for making cardboard boxes and they are well off by West Bank standards. But the future, as they often say, looks “difficult.”
I spoke briefly in church on Sunday, and received some applause. We Presbyterian preachers don’t get a lot of that, and I found it heartwarming. The rest of my stay was spent shadowing Fr. Firas in his parish duties and his other work as principal of both the parochial school in Jifna and a high school in Ramallah. The high school has 600 students. I was shown around by a teacher of English while Fr. Firas disciplined some seniors suffering from “senioritis.” As I was leaving Fr. Firas’s office the seniors were yelling back at him, and when I returned had convinced him not to tell their parents if they toed the line. I love the passion with which Palestinians emote with each other in Arabic.
We often hear from Israelis and others that nasty Muslims are driving Christians out of the Holy Land. The high school in Ramallah has a student body of 300 Catholic young people and 300 Muslims, and Fr. Firas and I spent an evening with several leaders in the Palestinian Authority, including a cousin of the President. Things are not perfect between Muslims and Christians, but they are so much better than many would have us believe.
While touring the school in Ramallah a young teacher with roots in Jordan told me how fearful she is for the future of the Palestinian people. She noted that Israel uses tumultuous times like the present to make life more and more impossible for Palestinians. A similar note was struck by Sam Bahour, a highly respected Palestinian American business leader who resides in Ramallah. He spoke one evening to our olive picking group and said flat out that the time has come to say to Israel, “OK, you’ve won. You have most of our land and are taking more and more. The only option left is a single state. We will now have to draw on world opinion and political pressure to gain our human rights within this one state. Israel will never relinquish the land she has taken, so two states will never happen.” This merely underscored what I saw while picking olives with farmers whose lands are under siege, and while visiting a large settlement near Bethlehem with irrigated lawns using water taken from West Bank lands—with West Bank residents having lost the rights to 85% of the water that had been theirs before 1967.
For my flight home I picked up a copy of the English edition of Haaretz, Israel’s leading daily newspaper. Here’s the headline that greeted me:
SURVEY: MOST ISRAELI JEWS ADVOCATE DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ARAB CITIZENS
The lead sentences are chilling: “Most of the Jewish public in Israel supports the establishment of an apartheid regime in Israel if it annexes the West Bank. A majority is also explicitly in favor of discrimination against the state’s Arab citizens, a survey shows.” I’ll just hit a few highlights of this disturbing survey that gives a clear endorsement to what Sam Bahour and others had told us during our time on the West Bank. A majority of 69 % of Jews in Israel are opposed to giving 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote if Israel annexes the West Bank (which in one form or another is rapidly becoming reality on the ground.)
A sweeping majority of 74% is in favor of separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Almost half (47%) want part of Israel’s Arab population transferred to the Palestinian authority. The clincher is that 58% of Jewish Israelis believe that Israel currently practices apartheid against Arabs. Israelis are saying what so riles our Jewish friends in the US if we even hint at it—there is no intention of giving Palestinians a contiguous block of land in the West Bank they could realistically call home.
Anyone working in farmers’ fields with the eyes to see cannot miss this fact. Accordingly, we are entering a new stage in our relationship to the Palestinian cause: that of championing their civil and human rights in a nation that is trying to fashion an apartheid regime right before our eyes. In the same issue of Haaretz the columnist, Gordon Levy, decries what is happening. I commend his column to you, with its sorrow-filled picture of a nation ready to say, “We’re racists….we practice apartheid and we even want to live in an apartheid state….Democracy—sure, why not. But for Jews only.”
Jim Brown served as Executive Director of General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1992 to 1996. He retired recently as Pastor of Market Square Presbyterian Church, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.At the onset I said that this was “a strangely hopeful” time to be on the West Bank as part of the Olive Picking program. It’s clear to me that we are moving away from the pretense that has marked the debates in recent years about the place of Palestinians in larger Israel—e.g., the Wall is primarily about security and is not part of a land grab—and now have to engage on the global stage in saying no to the ascendancy of apartheid in Israel and yes to a single state in which fairness and equality are the norm for one and all. This will be daunting, but far better than dancing around charges of being anti-Semitic if we use words like apartheid. [There’s more than a little irony in the fact that Jimmy Carter was in Israel when the above mentioned survey came out—given how he was lambasted for using the word apartheid in the title of his 2006 book.]
I’ll leave you with an image of planting and harvesting olive trees on the West Bank. The cab driver who took me to Beit Omar and who drove at a speed that left me with feet sore from flinching and applying imaginary brakes, suddenly slowed down as we neared Beit Omar and pointed to a field of young olive trees incased in white protective tubes. He smiled and said “Y,” meaning that he as a Moslem knew that the YM/YWCA in the Holy Land had planted these trees for Moslem farmers.
These young trees, with over 8600 of them planted in the West Bank this year alone, brought to mind crosses in our own National Cemeteries, glistening in the sun, reminding all who pass by of leadership and courage and hope. Jeremiah long ago encouraged a people in exile to plant gardens and eat from them, to build houses and live in them. The olive planting and picking project of the Joint Advocacy Initiative is a cry of hope that merits the support of all who seek the welfare, the shalom, Jeremiah knew to be the handiwork of God.
Jim Brown served as Executive Director of General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1992 to 1996. He retired recently as Pastor of Market Square Presbyterian Church, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.