A visit to Bethlehem: Life on the Other side of the Wall

Two weeks ago, during Hannukah, I spent three days in Bethlehem, as a guest of the World Council of Churches.  I was one of two Jews – my  dear friend, Mark Braverman, was the other – invited to be present for the launch of the Palestine Kairos document, an extraordinary appeal written by Palestinian Christian leaders to Christians worldwide and to the entire world community.  Entitled, A Moment of Truth: A word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering, the Kairos document is a painful and inspiring religious cry to people all around the world to end the Occupation.

“We, a group of Christian Palestinians, …..cry out from within the suffering in our country, under the Israeli occupation, with a cry of hope in the absence of all hope, a cry full of prayer and faith in a God ever vigilant, in God’s divine providence for all the inhabitants of this land.”

“In this historic document, we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples.”

In addition to participating in the meetings over the three days, I was asked  to offer a very brief public response to the document.

What did it mean to me?

As I read the document, I was moved and inspired by the clear articulation of the relationship between spiritual teachings of Christianity and the situation of Palestinians under Occupation.  I was particularly struck by the way the document balances the religious commitment to justice, to resist the evil of the Occupation, with the commandment to love, to see all people as reflection of the Divine, not to demonize the Occupiers.  In all struggles for justice this is the critical task for people of faith.  The essence of our faith is to see the world and all humanity as an expression of the Divine and out of this faith to pursue justice and peace and to resist evil.  It is very hard to do both and I chose to focus on this in my short response.

Here is some of what I said:

“I was struck by the balance in the Kairos document between the deep spiritual commitment to resist the injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people, along with a profound openness to the humanity of the oppressor.

Of course it struck me because I stand here today as a Jew, one who bears responsibility for the oppression.  While I don’t live in Israel, Zionism and the rebirth of the Jewish/Hebrew culture in Israel in Israel is important to me.  As much as I love the renewed Jewish culture in Israel, it is extremely painful to see our great spiritual tradition violated day by day by the cruelty and evil of walls, checkpoints, land confiscation, home demolition and countless other vile acts of injustice.

The injustice of the Occupation must end, God calls on all to resist the Occupation and to demand justice for the Palestinian people.  Without justice for the Palestinian people, the Jewish people will never be liberated from being an oppressor, a reality that violates God’s call to the children of Abraham to pursue justice and righteousness. As a rabbi, I join with you in the resistance to Occupation both because my faith commands me to resist any injustice but also because this injustice corrupts Judaism and the Jewish people..   As it is stated so powerfully in your document:

“Primary responsibility rests on the perpetrators of injustice they must liberate themselves from the evil in them and the injustice that they have imposed on their brothers and sisters.”

It is in this spirit that I am with you today.

For me and for all Jews this path to taking responsibility for the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians is a difficult and painful one.  Most people in our community know very little about Palestinian history and reality.  Moreover, acknowledging that something as dear as your faith, or your religious community,  is causing another people pain, is a difficult reality to acknowledge.

I invite you to read the entire Kairos document.  Is it possible for us to create a similar statement one that articulates how we as Jews on the basis of our faith understand our relationship to the land and  our responsibility to resist the Occupation?

For me it was the first time that I have stayed in Occupied Territories for several days.  Living on the other side of the Wall was transformative.  Every minute of the day, one lives with the reality of the Occupation.   I went through the checkpoint a few times with Palestinians and understood in a deeper way how demeaning and humiliating it is, even for those Palestinians who have the necessary documents, to wait in a line at the checkpoint, not knowing if the young soldier on duty will allow you to leave. Most Palestinians are “imprisoned” behind the wall and can’t even visit family and friends in Jerusalem, just a five-minute drive from their homes.

At the end of the meeting when I went to visit my family and friends in West Jerusalem, I just cried.  It felt like I had travelled from one planet to another.  How do I hold on to the reality of Jewish life in West Jerusalem that I love and the reality of Bethlehem under Occupation?

And I felt like Joseph seeking his brothers.  I was looking for my brothers and sisters, a Jewish community gathered around a theology of liberation, one that on the basis of our faith took full responsibility for our role in the oppression of the Palestinian people and took committed action to end the Occupation.  Is such a community possible?

My faith in the possibility of justice and reconciliation is expressed so beautifully in the  the Kairos document:

“Our land is God’s land, as is the case with all countries in the world. It is holy inasmuch as God is present in it, for God alone is holy and sanctifier. It is the duty of those of us who live here, to respect the will of God for this land. It is our duty to liberate it from the evil of injustice and war.

It is God’s land and therefore it must be a land of reconciliation, peace and love. This is indeed possible. God has put us here as two peoples, and God gives us the capacity, if we have the will, to live together and establish in it justice and peace, making it in reality God’s land: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).



  1. This is a beautiful statement, Brian, straight from the nefesh. It was a pleasure and an honor to share the experience with you – a span of days that I know neither of us will ever forget. And yes, the pain of entering Israel from the West Bank is an experience that cannot be adequately described — but you did it. On my way home I stopped in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem, and like you, am moved to write about it. I will follow your example and blog about this trip in the next few days. And will reciprocate by linking to this blog.

    Y’aseh shalom aleynu v’all kol yoshvei tevel.


    1. Thanks so much, Marc. It took me two weeks just to post this. There is so much more to say: Listening to Palestinians expressing their dismay and disappointment when efforts to support an end to the Occupation are squashed by Jews in the Diaspora, including many of my friends and the organizations that I belong to; the interaction with the inspiring group of South Africans at the event, the interaction with Christians from all over the world and getting a sense of how parochial my world is as an American, the emotional experience of crossing the checkpoint from one planet to the other, the connection of Kairos Palestine to Kairos South Africa, the experience of the Ecumenical accompaniament program, the theological issues raised in the document.

      I look forward to connecting with the Palestinians I met at the conference. As a Jew, I need to spend time with them, learn from them and discern how I/we can be true partners in their struggle for justice.

      Thanks for all your amazing work,


      1. Yes, Brian, for me the most wonderful, the most important, and the most life-changing thing for me about becoming involved in the struggle for justice in this historic place is the way I have been opened up to people from all over and from different traditions. It’s all about the relationships. What changed me when I saw the occupation for the first time was two things chiefly: of course the evil of the occupation itself, but also and I think more profoundly, meeting the Palestinian people. When I met them, knew them, and recognized them as sisters and brothers, the way was clear, the imperative was clear. The tragedy for Israelis is that they do not know them.


  2. With you, Brian, I find this an extraordinary document – bold, compelling, true to the call for love and justice which flows throughout your faith tradition and mine. A priest friend from Zababdeh who was one of the document’s authors told me of their months of struggle to craft a document they could all sign … and of the prayer that accompanied their struggle. I hope this may become a foundation document for Christians everywhere which unites us in this struggle. Our challenge – and our promise to Palestinian Christians – is to see that churches in this country are introduced to the faith and courage reflected in this document and that we join our voice with theirs.

    Thanks, Brian, for your faithful witness. I will hope to see you in Israel/Palestine.

    Cotton Fite

    1. Thanks Cotton. I feel so blessed to be part of a new interfaith movement that directly addresses these issues. One of the great gifts of Jewish Fast for Gaza is working together, ministers, rabbis, imams and priests to call the American people and government to pursue a policy in the Middle East that will end the Occupation, the siege on Gaza through a negotiated settlement between all the parties, including Hamas.

      I look forward to seeing you in Israel/Palestine.

      Happy New Year,


    1. Thanks.

      I just finally read the article that you wrote on the rabbinic call with Judge Goldstone that was published in Al Jazeerah. You enrich us with your poetry, interpretation and the way you integrate all the parts of your life.


  3. Hi Brian,

    You ask “Is it possible for us to create a similar statement one that articulates how we as Jews on the basis of our faith understand our relationship to the land and our responsibility to resist the Occupation?”

    It would be very interesting to do that. Maybe we can work on it while you’re here in Jerusalem.

    My own perspective is that while the Torah would certainly allow us to conquer the land, if we conquer the land we are obligated to follow “mishpat echad yiyeh l’chem, k’ger k’ezrach.” And of course, despite the charedi interpretations, it’s pretty clear to me from the context that the text is talking about gerei toshav, not gerei tzedek. If we want to keep the land, the Palestinians have to be treated equally — which means they become citizens of Israel, can vote, receive equal funding for municipal services, etc. If we are not willing to make them citizens–real voting citizens–we have no choice but to relinquish our claim to the land. The Torah does not tell us we can have our cake and eat it too. If we keep the land, we take on the obligation for the people there — and of course the Torah frames things more in terms of “obligations” than of “rights.”

    The Occupation is almost as bad for Israel as it is for the Palestinians — OK, a distant “almost.” The Occupation has been highly corrosive of the younger generation’s commitment to Zionism, it has distanced Diaspora Jews from Israel, it has made Israel a pariah among nations. It has truly been a disaster, and it’s time for it to end.

    Kol tuv, hope to see you when you are here in Ir Hakodesh…


    1. I look forward to discussing this with you in Jerusalem. I am hoping to gain a deeper understanding during my stay of how folks on both sides of this conflict envision moving beyond the past 100 years of using violence to advance political goals.

      I highly recommend reading a post by my colleague, Brant Rosen, who offers a similar approach to the issue of the land. As I understand your position, Israel would become a state of all its citizens with a large Jewish population. Is that how you see it? I am totally convinced that there is no such thing as a democratic Jewish state. A Jewish state by definition privileges Jews, Jewish culture etc.

      Looking forward to reconnecting,


      1. Yes, I agree with your bold statement, and this is the core issue for peace, it gets to the root cause of the conflict in my view which is the establishment of Jewish hegemony in historic Palestine. So the question becomes, once you allow, as Barry advocates, full citizenship and rights for Palestinians, you quickly lose the Jewish majority, and then what happens to the Jewish state? Clearly, that is over. And that is, must be, OK, we must be open to whatever comes next — which is where Avraham Burg’s work points, even if he himself is not willing to go all the way to that conclusion. Which is why I question your answer to Justin David about the Kairos statement’s reference to “occupation” being limited to Gaza and the West Bank. Ultimately, justice is justice for all the people of the land. We have to stop clinging to “Israel” as it was conceived in the last century, in that historical context, and look to the future. Otherwise the Jewish citizens of Israel are doomed to a worse fate than that of the temporarily occupied Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank and the only partially enfranchised Palestinian citizens of Israel.


  4. Dear Brothers in this struggle.
    I ask you again, how do we find a way to enlist a professor at Hebrew University to teach a mirror image course to the one at Bethlehem University on nonviolence and human rights and to have the students engage in this study by skype across the wall, visit common sites where nonviolence is practiced and human rights are violated? How my brothers? How?
    I love what you wrote, Brian. You are an honest, compassionate prophet.
    Catherine Alder

    1. Catherine,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. Let’s talk about how to make your wonderful vision a reality by email.

      I will be in Israel starting next week and would be happy to ask if there is interest at Hebrew University.

      Happy New Year,


  5. Thank you Brian for your witness and for sharing this important experience with us. Are you able/willing to draft a Jewish statement to support the Kairos Document—something that can be circulated widely/electronically and signed as a petition from world Jews to the State of Israel? As you know, there is a large majority of Jews who favor peace and Israel, e.g. J Street and Brit Tzedek in North America, who would love to support a life-giving effort like this.

    Best wishes, Roberta Apfel & Bennett Simn

    1. Thanks, Roberta and Bennett, for a great and ambitious idea. As a first step, I think it would be important for us first to study the Kairos document. I am not sure that everyone in Brit Tzedek, J Street etc. is ready to sign on. The liberal Jewish peace camp, Brit Tzedek is so timid and so unwilling to participate in the emerging grassroots anti-Occupation movement in America. Often Jewish liberal groups (J Street, Brit Tzedek) join in the public campaigns of the mainstream Jewish community to squash efforts like the Presbyterian resolution on divestment, or more recently in efforts to make Iran the central issue rather than the Occupation. Kairos is supportive of economic pressure (boycott, divestment, sanctions not only on products from the settlements) to end the Occupation, a position rejected by Brit Tzedek and J Street so far.
      My colleague, Brant Rosen has posted an article on his blog about the issue of Promised Land and how we as Jews related to this idea that fuels the conflict. What I would like to see is some serious study of the Kairos document and dialogue among Jews about what a Jewish response may be to the various issues the document tackles.

      You two have been such long time devoted Jewish advocates of peace. You are such a blessing.

      All the Best, Brian

  6. Thank you for this, Brian – I so admire the work you continue to do. But I do have questions about the statements you posted.

    “the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings”

    Admittedly, I’m taking a quote out of context that I read out of context, but here goes:

    Does “military occupation” mean West Bank and Gaza, or a Jewish state at all? Does the document imply that any kind of Zionism is anathema to Christianity, or does it leave the door open for a just, two-state solution? And what about “theologies” that not only legitimate violence, but laud it? I don’t mean to sound naive, it’s just I’m not sure what the above statements imply.

    I will read the document in full – I’m glad you were there!


    Justin David
    Northampton, MA

    1. Justin,

      Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment. The “military occupation” means the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It is a document that is consonant with a two state solution although they would undoubtedly want Israel to be a democratic state with full equality for all it’s citizens. This document is totally focussed on ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. As regards violence, there is an absolute clear rejection of violence although when you read the document they discuss the way Palestinian violence is in their opinion used by Israel to justify the Occupation. I would love to discuss this document in detail with a group of rabbis and Jews and really appreciate your question. It is quite a challenging document for many Jews: rejects idea of Promised Land, affirms the use of economic measures to end the Occupation and sees the Occupation as the root of the problem.

      Being present there was such a gift albeit with a fair amount of pain, sadness and confusion.

      Kol Tuv,


  7. Brian, Thanks for this post…coming at your concerns from a different angle I would like to share this with you. It is an article I recently had published on ‘Zeek’ a very interesting and innovative Jewish Magazine/website: On the ‘Right’ to Be a Settler

  8. Dear Brian: The Palestinian Kairos document is a remarkable document; I admire and applaud your courage as a Jew and a rabbi to attend the Bethlehem conference.

    This is a hugely difficult issue. The occupation has become too cruel, too oppressive, to allow us the luxury of remaining on the sidelines; it must come to an end. As a Quaker who considers himself both Christian and Jewish I feel a responsibility to both communities to move forward on this issue with courage and understanding. The occupation is a disaster for both Palestinians and Jews. How to move forward on this issue, that is the question which occupies my mind.

    Tony Gaenslen

    1. Thanks, Tony for your note. Yes the occupation must end and it is a matter of great urgency, so urgent that many are convinced that the most effective non-violent strategy is putting as much diplomatic, economic and moral presssure as possible on Israel. I am unhappily in this camp. Unhappy because it breaks my heart to advocate for cuts in US aid and effective economic boycotts but I believe that is what it will take to end the Occupation. The peace process is a sham and has been so for decades. Israel continues the settlement process day by day. The governments of the world aren’t going to end the Occupation and if they do, it will only be when we, civil and religious society force it on them. So how to move forward, that is as you point out the question. For me it means building a strong interfaith voice in the U.S. advocating for a fundamental change in U.S. Middle East policy.

      So good to hear from you, Tony. Would love to do a spiritual reflection with you and others on the Kairos document. As Jews begin to read the Book of Exodus, it is great contemporary text to read alongside the story of the Exodus.

  9. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for sharing something of your recent experience in Bethlehem, and your beautiful response. I remember the first Kairos document, from South Africa, came out when I was working for AFSC. We used it as a point of departure for opening dialogue with churches and meetings across the country. The NE Regional Secretary was a former nun, and I travelled with her throughout New England talking with nuns and priests and lay activists, as well as to public gatherings. One result was that many individual churches and orders issued their own statements opposing apartheid and urging local boycotts. To the extent that a “Jewish Kairos” could have a similar instrumentality as a call to action, I hope one will be written. Thinking through who would use it, and how, will be important; otherwise, it could become a document on the shelf.

    With the first one, I remember some debate emerged because it seemed to support violent resistance in the face of repression. That’s how people got to dismiss its message without seeming racist. But in this one, the call to resist is emphatically imbedded in love as the only way to break the cycle of violence. It’s very powerful and quite humbling given the everyday reality for Palestinians.

    So I wish you a good and safe journey. I’ll be eager for your messages and doing what I can here.


  10. This statement shows how totally disconnected you and your group are from reality. You sit and talk with a group of Palestinian Christians who have NO political power whatsoever in the Palestinian territories and who are in decline due to pressure from the Muslims there (as Christians are throughout the Muslim Middle East) and yet you think that reaching some sort of agreement on them on some sort of statement will have some influence. The Palestinian territories are controlled by FATAH which has its officially associated Tanzim and Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade terrrorist organizations and in Gaza, the HAMAS terrorist organization. The reason the security wall was put and the checkpoints were put in place was due to the suicide bombings and indiscriminate rocket attacks these groups carried out, and not out of some “sadistic” plan to “humiliate” the Palestinians, as you seem to indicate.
    If you, as a Rabbi, think you can demand sanctions on Israel which could, G-d forbid, possibly lead to damaging Israel’s security interests, you are simply going to cut yourself off from both Israelis in general, and the most of the American Jewish community as well. This is because everyone realizes that the reason the “occupation” comtinues IS BECAUSE THE ARABS REFUSE TO MAKE PEACE WITH ISRAEL ON ANY TERMS ANY ISRAELI GOVERNMENT CAN LIVE WITH. Even extremists like Uri Avnery opposed sanctions and J-Street, a group set up for the explicit purpose of dividing the American Jewish community, finally realized that this was too radical a step to take and they also oppose sanctions.

    But, let’s say you are willing to take the plunge and cut yourself off from most of world Jewry and demand sanctions. YOU WON’T GET THEM. Whj? Because most people in the world, outside of the Muslim countries, couldn’t care less about Israel, the Palestinians, the settlements and such. Most people remember the suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel. The US itself is now suffering a wave of Muslim terror of the same kind. Most people know it is the Arabs who reject peace. Most people know there are human rights problems in the world far worse than that of the Palestinians.
    Just as YOU don’t get involved in those problems (Darfur, Tibet, the division of Cyprus, the mutual slaughter of Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan and other places) because you don’t have the time or inclination to do so, most people don’t care about the Palestinians. So you can protest all you want about demands for sanctions, most people don’t care about it. So your movement will fail.
    But even if there was some success, do you think the radical groups who have much influence in Palestinian society and which reject Israel in totality, including within the pre-67 lines, would close up shop if you did succeed in pushing Israel out of Judea/Samaria without a viable peace agreeement (which the Palestinians will not agree to?). You would simply by laying the groundwork for a further assault on Israe. Do you really want that on your concience?

  11. Brian, I enjoyed our brief discussion at Kol Ha Neshamah last night. The coincidence of our sitting together was “God’s way of remaining anonyomous” Re: your last Blog: like the compassion of Jesus’ Christianity was kidnapped by Paul, it seems our Judaism’s commitment to justice is being kidnapped. sbell@berry.edu or steveinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com

    1. “The ways of God are mysterious, baffling the mind” It was so wonderful and wondrous to land up sitting next to you for Shabbat services. There are so many Jews like you doing amazing work in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Thanks for your courage, wisdom and commitment. Marc Ellis talks about the Constantinization of Judaism, the process by which Judaism was hijacked to be subsumed by the needs of a nation state. In the Judaism that I grew up with, Zionism, Israel and Judaism were all one. It is urgent that we separate them. Judaism is not synonymous with the policy of Israel or any other nation state.

  12. Kavod HaRav Brian,

    Thank you very much for your openess, your courage and your voice as a Rabbi for Justice and Peace.
    Also I’m impressed about the Kairos-Document from Palestine.

    As you know, Rabbi Mona told,that the World based on the following three pillars:

    Emet – Mishpat – Shalom
    Truth – Justice – Peace.

    This belongs to the old Jewish discussion about Peace during centuries.

    I think, you are following to this tradition. Kol HaKavod.


    23 Jewish People from Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Israel, had launched an Appeal to the Israeli Government. You will find it on the following Website:


    Till the end of February 2012, which means during three years, we are looking for other Jews, who agree with our Appeal.
    Till now we’ve 1’311 signatures (see the list on our Website).

    If you agree as a Jewish individual, you can sign it and send the Website to other open minded Jews you know.

    Best Regards and good Wishes for 2010,

    Jochi Weil-Goldstein, Initiator, Zurich

    (Since many years I’m working as Responsible for Medical Projects in Palestine and between Israel and Palestine at medico international schweiz, formerly Centrale Sanitaire Suisse CSS Zürich, http://www.medicointernational.ch (in German language). Also I’m active in the Olive Oil Campaign, http://www.olivenoel-palaestina.ch (also in English language).

    Up to now more than 1’000 Jews from different countries have signed the Appeal on the Website
    http://www.humanrights-in-israel.ch. Among them is Yael Dayan (Chairperson of the City Council Tel Aviv Yaffo, Israel); Brian Klug (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, UK); Peter Lilienthal (Film-Director, Germany); Ari Rath (Commentator of Politics and Current Affairs, former Editor of the Jerusalem Post, Israel); Alice Shalvi (Winner of the Israel Prize 2007, Israel) Jack Steinberger (Physicist, Nobel Prize-Winner, Switzerland); and Ralph Weill (Former Member of the Executive Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland SIG) and many others. We are pleased about the wide range of people from all walks of life coming from different places in the world. Every single signature is important! You can find the names in an alphabetic order on the Website. There is also a list of people put together with respect to their countries (see the attachment).
    In the face of the disastrous situation in the Middle East it is vital that we can collect more signatures in order for the appeal to be more significant. We therefore would be most grateful if you could draw the attention of your Jewish friends to the Website so that they may sign.

    With best Wishes,

    Shelley Berlowitz Philippe Lévy Jochi Weil

  13. The parallel roads we are taking (yours in a pioneer, leadership position, mine as a follower)are so encouraging to me, Brian! And Mark Braverman has been so important to each of us.

    I am now part of the new, Philly-based group, Christian-Jewish Allies for Peace, which was started as an outgrowth of the November Tree of Life Conference at Mishkan Shalom and St. Paul’s Episcopal, Chestnut Hill. I have a sense of freedom as a Christian, vis a vis Israel, that I have not ever experienced before.

    For decades I was– as Mark explains what happened in his book “Fatal Embrace”– effectively silenced by the deal worked out between leaders of us liberal Protestants with Jews: as a penance for our role in the Holocaust we would not apply to Israel any of the critique the social activists among us regularly applied to human rights violators in countries like South Africa, El Salvador, Nicaragua. I not only abided by this agreement– I was one who spread this wherever I went in my pro-peace actions: I would tell people going to our events that we were not to bring Israel/Palestine into it. The groups I was involved with rejected the approach of groups like ANSWER– who said we should not call only for the US to stop its imperialistic wars in the Middle East but needed to speak of the Occupation and of Israel’s human rights violations with Palestinians (I shudder to think of how I accepted or spread this “gentlemen’s agreement” to apply to 4 or 5 groups I was related to over the years.

    I want to spread the Kairos document among Christians just as I spread the S. African Kairos document in the 80s. Thank you, Brian!

    1. Blessed be the One who frees the captive! This Jewish morning blessing came to mind as I read your post, Al. You have been such an inspiration to me and I am just delighted that we have reached a place where we are ready to join together to bear prophetic witness here in Israel/Palestine. We have been bound by the pain the past and the manipulation of our communities to use the pain of the past to silence our voices in regard to the ongoing injustice being inflicted on the Palestinian people. Christian-Jewish allies for Peace! Halleluyah! May many more Jews, Christians, Muslims and others join together as allies for peace.
      Thank you,

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