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SanghaSeva ~ Picking Olives in a War Zone








I'd been at Uni in Jerusalem for two years just after the Six Day War. Not long after leaving Israel the news became too painful to keep reading. All my love got buried down in the basement; like unconsciously disowning someone.

It was just one of those things; out of nowhere, you just have to do it; and know somehow that not to would be bloody foolish. It was just a posted leaflet. Sanghaseva was offering a two week retreat, an experiment in engaged spirituality bringing ones experience of Buddhist meditation together with service as spiritual community to support Palestinian farmers with their olive harvest. It was surprising to discover that it left me feeling this curious sense of owing it to them to do something. It was even more surprising to later discover, as our group met in Tel Aviv for the first time, and shared why each of us had come, that these feelings were volcanic and anguished, erupting with such unstoppable intensity that it shocked me no less than everyone else. What I basically found myself saying was, "After over 2000 years of persecution and then the Holocaust as icing on the cake, even then, we can still let ourselves become the persecutor. Have we not learned anything?"

The town of Ba'arta's predicament is poignant. In 1948 the boundary split the town separating hundreds of couples from family or each other. Those in the Eastern half are Israeli citizens and there are high rates of inter-marriage. There is no check point between both halves, but any Palestinian from the West bank found on the Israeli side is arrested. The check point is found at the new security wall a few miles to the East, cutting Ba'arta off from the West Bank. Thus there can be interminable waits from those from Ba'arta trying to cross to the fields, or worse, to the doctor/hospital; at least one pregnant women died there by not being let through. Ba'arta has been dumped in a limbo of no-mans land. They feel abandoned and isolated, but they seem so determined to peacefully struggle for basic needs like medical services that the town is a growing focus for peace activism. The peace organization called Middleway which helped arrange our stay at Ba'arta promotes a non-violent approach to peace-making and social change?. They helped build a clinic cum large meeting hall where a UN doctor can hold surgery twice a week, and Middleway organises complementary therapists to come on another day. The town officials and dignitaries who hosted our four day stay at the clinic are grateful for all the help they have been offered and expressed their appreciation for our solidarity, with occasions of magnanimous Arab hospitality. It was all the more beautiful for being Ramadan; while feasting honoured guests they fasted.

Though disappointed that the season?s first rain put back our first day of olive picking, a curiously valuable PR exercise developed, as amazed locals saw westerners and Israelis cleaning one of their main streets of rubbish that have lived there for many a moon. In a 'Tom Sawyer-like' fashion, some local children, puzzled but curious, got roped into the team, their presence and attempts to communicate making it a lot more fun.

The elemental simplicity and earthiness of olive picking can be rather fulfilling, almost therapeutic; the feel and hand-flow in milking each branch of olives, the rain-like plop- plop cascade of them falling onto plastic sheets, drifting in and out of sun and shade and random conversations and pleasant trains of thought.

On the way to the orchids, two middle aged ladies stopped their car to chat with us and to share each other's purpose. The Machsom Watch are growing number of Jewish mothers and grandmothers who guard the checkpoint guards, trying to stir their consciences (as only Jewish mothers can) and registering all abuses observed. We heard so many painful stories about soldiers and about the checkpoint that on our last day in Ba'arta, we had to see for ourselves. In one lane a long cue of cars waiting for hours, and in the other lane Israeli settlers would drive up and go right through. One Palestinian in the long cue of people recognised our Middleway host and complained loudly of interminable waiting. There were a few soldiers at the front of the queue who were interested in checking us out, just as we were them; they said it was fun to be there. As they drifted off we gradually engaged the one left behind. After carefully checking he wasn't being watched, he told us how much he really didn't want to be there. He strongly disliked what was happening around him and did his best to help the Palestinians whenever possible. On cue, one of them approached him with his problem, and our new friend tried to get the border police to deal with the little group which had been put aside on a technicality for quite a long while. He was just a guard, the border police have there own agenda, and our friends efforts this time seemed in vain. The checkpoint was like a cross between a sanitised modern airport and a concentration camp and it left us feeling thoroughly drained and disheartened. But the young guard had successfully derailed our stereotype prejudice forming about Israelis in the army.

There had been some rewarding gatherings in the evenings, after our hosts had a chance to break the Ramadan fast. The first night, following introductions, there were tales of loss and anger which hungered to be heard and held by empathetic hearts. On 'English night', the young chaps and lads came to try playfully using what they had. A spontaneous and light hearted question- answer variation of spin-the-bottle brought many laughs ("Mohammed, why aren't you praying in the mosque tonight"). Enjoyable social engagement between opposing sides seems pretty good policy to discourage young men from being radicalised into potential suicide bombers. Most impressive though was the monthly Dialogue Circles organised by Middleway. About 80 Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Jews, and our group of foreign visitors broke up into small groups to truly listen to each other, this month's theme being: how did the latest war in Lebanon affect you personally? Being heard by and hearing the 'enemy' is such a simple effective way to break down the painful barriers enforcing separation. On our last night, at the mountain top abode of the local clan chief, the glorious vista of night lights glowing from the West Bank to the Mediterranean inspired dreams of peace.

During our four days in Ba'arta we felt given more than we could give, and it gave a chance for our twelve individuals from seven countries to naturally coalesce into a solid, light-spirited group ready to receive, and process through meditation, all the stories of fear and despair already told and yet to come.

It was now time for some 'more serious' olive picking. The two half days picking in Ba'arta had been a warm-up. Now staying just outside of Jerusalem, we took the bus for volunteers organised by the Rabbis for Human Rights for a full days work in the places where help was requested by the farmers because the settlers there have already actively harassed them and their neighbours. As well as supporting their humanity and helping to harvest, we were there to protect. Hopefully, our presence would discourage the settlers from acting. If not, help would be called in, pictures taken, and we were to intervene by standing in between settlers and farmers. After a few hours of steady picking, and following hospitality in a much appreciated lunch break our host took us to see an old olive tree and stone house both over 200 years old. Sadly, both had recently been seriously damaged by the settler's methodical hooliganism.

Though it was late October, the sun was still oppressive, and by mid afternoon, exhaustion from heat and work made me feel, unusually, my full 59 years plus a bit. Keeping up with the young whipper-snappers required my fully focusing on picking 'just- this- olive'. It was a great relief when the heat broke and I could finish the days picking with the enthusiasm of a second wind. Back on the bus with quiet space and refreshed energy I turned inward to see how my 'travelling companion' was. The outflow of anguish about the whole Israeli- Palestinian tragedy, which had so surprised me in its first eruption, had come along on this journey and been triggered internally again and again by new stories, new angles. It didn't seem to diminish, but I was growing used to it, and there was a beautiful quality to its pain. Now it surprised me again. It was gone. Searching carefully within, and even using its most reliable trigger, the emotionally charged words of the song from the movie Exodus ("This land is mine. God gave this land to me"), didn't even stir it. And after that, it didn't return except in smaller doses. Even now, I don't properly understand the mystery of its coming and going, but there seemed to be a message to be taken from the timing of its departure; in fully giving one?s energy to doing what felt truly right, even the simple act of picking olives, was a genuine alternative to anguish, grief, and despair.

As the next day was the celebration of Ramadan's ending and olive picking wouldn't happen, the Rabbis for Human Rights invited our group for a study morning to better understand their objectives and principles. Their presentations were intended for Buddhists, mistakingly so, as though we all practice some form of Buddhist meditation, I was the only group member to call myself an -ist. When, through timely feedback, they also realised we weren't like Rabbinical students, things came alive in exploring sticky moral issues. Even though recently awarded the Niwano Peace Prize, it was unexpected to hear that the principle of non-violence was not the basis of their activism. Instead, their interventions are based on the biblical and Talmudic principle of minimal force, e.g. using minimal force to successfully stop and apprehend a thief [Compassionately rather than angrily]. As well as practically and legally defending Palestinian rights, they also focus on the economic rights of the Israeli underclass, house demolitions and education. They recently won a crucial high court victory, compelling the army to be fully responsible in protecting Palestinian lives, property, and rights against the attacks and harassments of settlers. When the director, Arik, finished the morning with examples of their work in the West Bank, it sounded so exactly what was needed by Israeli?s as well as Palestinians, that thanking him didn?t feel enough. Instead, I offered warmly, "I envy you". Indeed, taking some effort to pull myself away from their offices, it was clear that if living in Israel I could, should, would for the first time in my life, totally engage in activism.

While walking to the bus stop, someone told me of an incredible peace group which she heard speaking amidst a significant gathering of peace groups. Imagine ex- soldiers, ex- freedom fighters/terrorists, Palestinians and Israelis who have previously killed each other's comrades, now 'fighting' together for peace. There is a lot of grass-roots peace work happening out there, perhaps a sad reflection on us all, that such things don?t seem to be considered newsworthy; is it because they are not conducive to fear and despair.

Everyone was on their way to a personally guided tour of some special places in the Old City and it was difficult to not join in . But it wasn't just my Jewish karma pulling me inexorably to the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. After receiving so much negative input about Israel, in balance, I needed to remember on a gut level. The beauty and grandeur of the memorial are in perfect counterpoint to the horror of its story. No matter how many times one exposes oneself to it, it still shocks, to the very root of our humanity. As unhelpful as it may be to resolving the whole predicament, and as tragic as the present day consequences may be, it is very important to not forget that the Jews have very good reason to be paranoiac about their survival.

The next day we were picking olives a couple of hundred metres down a winding road, and directly below the armed guard post of a satellite settlement. There was some question whether we would be allowed to pick there as the settlers were trying to get the landmark legal ruling preventing them harassing the farmers to also exclude the presence of any Israeli or foreigner, irrelevant of whether the farmers invited them and felt safer with them there. To strengthen their case, they blatantly lied to the army that we had provoked them by trying to penetrate the settlement perimeter. We had to wait a few hours for the lie to be exposed, and for the powers that be to finally allow us to return to picking. The farmer offered us soft drinks while we waited, and in conversation we discovered how, without any recompense, an illegal settlement took over alot of his land: first one, then gradually many more caravans, a fence, houses, bull-dosing his trees: all under the protection of the army and collusion of the courts. Then two years ago, ten Yeshiva girls came down while he was away. His wife's leg was broken and the olives they had picked were scattered. Despite his continuing to try to get justice, the courts first twice postponed the case for a year, and then managed to avoid even hearing it. It's especially sad to hear that it's not just the government, police, and army, but also the justice system colluding with the settler's illegal and cruel actions.

In a moment of light counterpoint, the director of RHR joined us later in the afternoon after hours on his mobile and travelling around to sort the various glitches that arose and it was a cheering sight to have him relax into two handed olive picking while talking to an Associated Press reporter on his mobile tucked between head and shoulder.

Following a centring day of group meditation and shared personal processing, back on the bus, there was sad news. The day before there had not been sufficient volunteers. An unprotected farmer and family were set upon by settlers with sticks and an iron bar. Stones were thrown. The farmer was badly hurt by the iron bar, including a concussion and a broken shoulder. Only with much difficulty did they get the army to allow him to be taken to the hospital. Later, all the large bags of olives they had harvested were stolen. Somehow, in the story printed in the Israeli newspapers, the settlers and army were blameless, it was all the farmers fault.

Upon arriving at our picking site there was a last minute urgent call. An isolated family was in a very vulnerable position with their escape route easily cut off, and the reputation of the settlers there for extreme harassment was widely known. Our young coordinator, the only one of us who spoke both English and Hebrew fluently, was asked to go there by herself with the driver. The older man in me couldn't let her be thrown to the lions alone. The younger man in me couldn't miss the opportunity to go. I had told concerned friends, I was in more danger riding my bicycle in Chichester traffic than I would be with the Palestinians, but I hadn't reckoned on the settlers.

Going past the town of Nablus and then the main army headquarters, this was unsettlingly unfamiliar territory; we knew the many army patrols on the road could easily become more of the problem than the solution. Just as we passed a shooting range, only metres from the road, with half a dozen settlers firing at cut out cardboard in human form with a bull's-eye over the heart, our reliable driver pointed to a hilltop settlement, describing their antics as bad and dirty. The coordinator understandably said she was feeling some fear for the first time, so we planned tactics; when and how to best employ our only defensive weapons, a mobile phone and a digital camera. We agreed that speaking English to them as an American Jew might be helpful in relocating their intention to a more sociable arena as well as keeping me informed and directly engaged . Then we realised to not provoke reaction, defensive weapons were best left hidden and used only as a last resort. As we really did want to meet and listen genuinely to the settlers as people, we only needed to make sure that they could feel that.

We were now prepared to let go of worry and spend the day with what proved to be a delightful family. The retired headmaster father, the earthy but intelligent mother, and the shy but intrigued teenage daughters who had brothers at the university in both US and England, all spoke enough basic English to make the day enjoyable; not to mention the best homemade olives and zata ever, so we nearly forgot about the settlers. At least until late afternoon, when out of the blue, a few Europeans wandered past, newly trained members of the International Solidarity Movement. A movement whose members were almost entirely young people, they were also there to pick olives with the Palestinians in trouble spots. We found out a good reason why we hadn't encountered any problems that day. The settlers had adjusted their strategy. Yesterday afternoon, watching from their hilltop vantage point with binoculars, they waited until army patrols and western volunteers had left, and then harassed and hurt a family just down the road.

Feeling disempowered and helpless from ongoingly hearing such stories makes the anger of ones own moral outrage more challenging to deal with. We had had enough. Everyone agreed we needed to meet the settlers- as real people rather than 'others' who were being slowly caricatured and demonised by our minds into 'the baddies'. We needed to meet ?real? people whose pain our hearts could be open to.

It got arranged for Sunday morning but before then other fascinating real people were to further fill out the picture. That Friday evening, after a mellow and nostalgic last day of olive picking, it was arranged for us to go to a Reformed Synagogue to join the service celebrating the welcoming of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Rabbi Arik (director of Rabbis for Human Rights) met with us beforehand and explained the service like layers of an onion to be peeled away; first prayers of transition to warm up with, prayers of praise to stir our aspiration, and further prayers leading on to silent union. The meaning of the words now had new spiritual significance, the joyful atmosphere and songs were rousing (indeed one catchy tune got so stuck in our group psyche that it supplanted the Palestinian national anthem as the latest TOTPs), and then the silence was palpable.

We were now truly prepared to go in four separate pairs, like lambs to the slaughter, to be overwhelmed by the full force of Jewish cooking as perfected in the Friday night Shabbat meal ritual; hospitality which was rivalled only by what we had already received from the Palestinians.

Our hostess Jo, warmly welcomed Benoit and myself in to their home, which looked like an art gallery, filled with her multi-textured works of art as biblical commentary. Resting on the sofa was Rabbi Jacob a fellow Brooklynite who's strong accent helped make our connecting much easier. A respected academic who taught in Berkeley, after his retirement, about eleven years ago his Zionism brought him and his family to Israel. With course after course of temptation to seriously overeat, there was accompanying discussion of a Jewish text which explored Abraham?s willingness to follow God?s command to sacrifice his son Isaac. Was it genuine devotion, [even beyond sacrificing of one's own life], foolish [perhaps callous] blind faith, or a test for Abraham and for Isaac too? Finally, the Rabbi who had been listening quietly, told us that actually it is seen that the test was for God, as He had promised that Isaac's children would fill the land of Israel and He now seemed to be contradicting Himself by demanding that Isaac be sacrificed. The human heart and intelligence may say no, but intuitive faith fives the courage to rise up beyond oneself and challenge God, as He does us.

More courses followed; the need for further restraint of appetite became more apparent, and conversation moved onto the peace work we were engaging in. The fifth person present, Rabbi Jacob's son Jeremy (also a Rabbi), responded by pouring out his heart?s anguish to us. As his father later explained, Jeremy has dedicated his life to assisting with the tragedy befalling Palestine. He explained that as well as the human tragedy imposed by the army and the settlers, there was also the accommodation, if not direct encouragement of this by the government, the one-sidedness tolerance of injustice by a tainted justice system and the silence of a Israeli majority who knew what was happening but in despair really don?t want to know any more. He even lambasted the Rabbis for Human Right who were claiming to represent Israel?s conscience. He said that through intervention from their Board of Governors they were restricted to their voicing only less controversial areas of contention; thereby not truly being Israel's vocal conscience. Strangely, I found the most worrying aspect of Jeremy's strong but well researched opinions was his receptivity. For when we then spoke to him of small is beautiful grass roots engagement as a worthy alternative to fear, despair, and painful efforts towards false solutions, you could see him listening with a vulnerability which is not the hallmark of a rabid self-righteous fanatic. When Rabbi Jacob was asked his feelings on all this, he enigmatically explained that the spiritual aspiration of Zionism was to be a light to the nations, (to which Jeremy quipped: its actually more of a backup light), and that he would like me to come speak again with him after meeting with the settlers.

On Saturday morning we joined 30-40 people on a 2/3 hour peace walk organised by our friends in Middleway. In the pouring rain there was a silent single file of wet white-sashed people slipping through streets of new and old Jerusalem. Cards were distributed to the interested with messages written on the theme that movement towards peace is possible. This was more likely to evoke irritation or bemusement from Israelis, while from the Palestinians in the Old City there were expressions of sadness, curiosity, and occasionally hope.

Afterwards, we gathered to be feasted in a rather unique place, one truly worthy of being called ?a house of peace?. The owner was Ibraham, who's ancestors, some living well past the 100 mark, had lived there since the 15th century and had successfully spread out by the thousands to various Arab lands and alsoWashington DC. He is himself a kind of peace institution and is often invited abroad on a variety of peace related ititiatives. He jokes "I often don't know who is sleeping in my own house", for the upstairs dorms and the food are available freely to everyone from all sides who comes in peace. You see a beautiful man who emanates his peace with both humility and unashamed grandeur; and you can't help but want to be more like that. Later our group was asked to speak about our experiences. Personally I shared that again and again amidst all the fear and despair, kept arising the old adage: "Instead of raging against the darkness, light a candle". Someone else added that this candle was the light of clear awareness. In our small group that followed the allegory expanded further. Amidst such perpetual helplessness it seemed the only hope of avoiding inevitable burnout was if the outer light of skilful action and the inner one of clear self-awareness could keep each other from going out. Another then added that though both lights sometimes do go out anyway, we can still use the inspiration of good friends to re-ignite our candles. This expanding allegory was magically encapsulating what our groups journey seemed to be about. When seriously challenged, little baby steps [inwardly and outwardly together], simple practical and personal if possible, can help us to rise up and meet it rather than being burdened and bowed down by despair.

Perhaps appropriately, a sort of finale to our journey came with the settlers. We kind of got what we expected, but maybe a bit more. Behind guards with their uzi machineguns surrounded by barbed wire, we visited Talle in a caravan, shabby looking on the outside but lovely and homey within. This temporary residence, like the houses being built there, were on ?not to be purchased? Arab land, and like some form of growth, the settlements just keep on spreading. Many settlers are economic migrants, Talle was an education migrant. After some time of unsuccessfully searching for the right school, she came upon and completely fell in love with the settlement school which would offer her three boys (with another child so obviously on the way) personalised, loving holistic education. She was thus willing to take the whole package, which sadly included not caring who's land her house was being built on.

Everyone she had asked to join us was busy that morning, except fortunately for Ronin. With the solid stature of a formidable warrior, he held his six month year old daughter so gently and lovingly to his chest the whole time we were there. He had been trained as an engineer, but now worked as a tour guide for American Jews who watching CNN were often so outraged by what they saw Israel doing to its neighbours that Ronin had become well trained through these gladiatorial encounters in teaching the Truth of what was really happening. Taking over the group space with his tutorial monologue, he projected upon us his deep conviction of the Truth of political Zionism, from ancient history on up to present day issues of apartheid and settler outrages. Though there were ten of us and only two of them, we were determined to not let ourselves be pulled into argument, so as to stay as open as possible to their humanity and their story. It became evermore increasingly difficult not to squirm as, with increasing pressure, the Truth filled the space. The first of us to speak was casually brushed aside as a minor inconvenience. Feeling compelling pressure to ay something and yet not react, intuition finally opened my mouth to tell him briefly why I was there: American Jew, student in Jerusalem after Six Day War, loving Israel and its people, the pain of the Palestinian persecution, but most of all the greater pain of after thousands of years of being persecuted and with the Holocaust as the icing on the cake, how our people have now become the persecutors. He attempted brushing me aside, saying, "unless Jews came to live in Israel they can?t possibly really understand."

Unmoved by his dismissals, the situation was empowering me to sit forward, meet him fully and to hold him lightly in a space of caring openness and silence, even as he tried reverting to his doctrines. Then Talle chipped in a most incredible story of her magnificent aunt, a kind of mini Israeli mother Teresa, fluent in Arabic, who dedicated her life with remarkable creative industry to the health, education and welfare of her Palestinian neighbours. Profoundly inspired, I enthused how her aunt was indeed the true peace maker and how much we needed more loving beings like her. [Indeed we needed to be more like her.] In this charged situation, Talle's story set the stage for talking about our humble efforts of olive picking as friendly gesture of support, and how the rightness of itcould be experienced directly and personally; and how it also could be an antidote to fear and despair. Ronin's eyes and mine held each other for many minutes in a highly charged space of gentle strength as two of us engaged him in what proved a premature ending; our prearranged sheroot (minibus taxi) hooted its arrival. In that fear hidden behind a wall of dogma had I been seeing something loosening up within him? Hugging one another in farewell, it certainly felt more like friends than opponents. There is a special bond that forms with someone when we can rise up to meet them without ignoring or struggling over painful differences.

Later back at the ranch, while exploring this powerful experience together there was a salient lessen in the groups capacity to process stuff that as individuals we might miss, for it became clear how a subtle combativeness had been absorbed and was now creeping into some of the exchanges between one another.

In our final day of quiet practice and review it was abundantly clear how richly each of us had been blessed by each other and all those we met. It felt so strange that the spiritual strength of our beautiful little community was about to dissolve back into separate journeys. But not just to continue our journey as before; we've each been changed.

At the airport, winding through the labyrinth of sweet young things flirtingly probing your psyche under guise of checking your passport was a suitably surreal comic ending to the Israel- Palestine experience. Just before leaving, my spiritual Zionist Rabbi friend did open to me some of his pain about the whole predicament, but he chose to focus mainly on the joy that living in the holy land can bring to the spiritual life. Indeed, the Jew half of my JewBu-ness had felt its siren-like pull on the heart strings as when sitting silently in the profound grace of the Western Wall. The second time I have left Israel and left something of myself behind.