Musalaha: A Reason to Hope

You Can’t Say We Didn’t Know:
Some Perspectives on Israel, Palestine, and the Conflict

Episcopal Bishop’s Committee for Israel/Palestine
Diocese of Olympia
October 2016

By Carolyn Sherrard

Recently it occurred to me that in the midst of the distressing news we constantly read about Palestine-Israel, it would be heartening to discover something that offers encouragement regarding peace and justice in that land. As I researched current reconciliation efforts, I was struck by a surprisingly large number that feature Palestinians and Israelis working together to end the illegal occupation there. Of those, I was particularly drawn to an organization called Musalaha, whose very name means “reconciliation” in Arabic.

There were two reasons why Musalaha interested me. Firstly, and this is unique, the foundation for its message and activities are Jesus Christ’s teachings about forgiveness and reconciliation in Scripture (e.g., Galatians 3:8 and Ephesians 2:14–16). Thus, its leaders are men and women committed to living out those principles. Secondly, Shadia Qubti, a young Palestinian woman representing Musalaha, spoke in our church last year. I was impressed both by her candor and forbearance regarding the effects of the Israeli occupation of her homeland, as well as her own story, which she recounted calmly, without hostility.

Musalaha’s mission statement is:

Musalaha is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians as demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus. We seek to be an encouragement and facilitator of reconciliation, first among Palestinian Christians and Messianic Israelis, and then beyond to our respective communities.

This organization was founded in 1990 by Dr. Salim Munayer, Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College, at a time when both sides recognized that even among Palestinian and Christian believers, unity was rare, due in part to the First Intifada.[1] Even Christians who share the same faith and goal of honoring God’s word as they pursue reconciliation are prone to division due to cultural misunderstandings, negative images, opinions and attitudes about one another, language barriers, general resentfulness, dehumanization and demonization of each group by the other. Finally, they have a common concern about whether it is actually possible for Palestinians and Israelis who desire to retain their own identity, history, and nationality to live together amicably as neighbors without hostility, bitterness and fear.

Two things were clear to Dr. Munayer. Building relationships would have to be the crucial first step, daunting because it would require people to reach out to those on the other side, persons who each group had little reason to trust. Once started, the sustainability of these vulnerable new relationships would be vital.

Towards that end, Musalaha has an Executive Board composed of an equal number of Christian Palestinian and Israeli community and church leaders committed to this ministry of reconciliation, whose foundation is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They believe that forgiveness and healing are only possible through following his example and obeying his words. They seek to emulate and teach Christ’s model of forgiveness, mercy, and love, and in this way to bring down strongholds of enmity that embitter and hold generations hostage on both sides.

Dr. Munayer’s innovation was to take people from both groups out to the neutral environment of the desert to seek common ground. He began this experience by teaming fifteen Palestinians with fifteen Israelis in the group to ride as pairs on camels. In the desert, all were equal as they coped with the camels, the heat and discomfort. These challenges became a venue for opening communication and initiating relationships. Once working relationships were established, participants were more able to deal with the issues arising from apartheid because the personal narratives they heard affected how they perceived historical events that had grieved and alienated them. Seeing the faces of those who had been one’s enemies made it difficult to dehumanize and demonize each other despite the fact that both sides repeatedly reported they had been initially filled with apprehension, prejudice and fear.

Over the years, Musalaha has expanded its reconciliation projects to include summer camps for children — the younger the better, since learning to understand the other side comes more quickly with early exposure — publishing, cultural teaching and leadership training. Programs include those specifically geared to children (ages 8–12), youth (ages 13–19), young adults, and women, whose role is critical as they impact their families with attitudes of tolerance and understanding rather than prejudice and bigotry. Social services are also provided for both Palestinian and Israeli communities. For those who stay with Musalaha, training is offered in reconciliation leadership including how to bear personal witness to the transformative power of what they have experienced and how to recruit new participants into the process.

At this point, there are two related tracks, one being the faith-based process described so far. The other is a bridge-building effort to branch out from believing communities to reach people regardless of their religious beliefs. This effort is guided by Biblical principles of peace, goodwill, and love, heeding the admonition of Romans 12:18, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” A strong foundation for discussion is the fact that the three monotheistic religions of this land share common moral values.

Nevertheless, Musalaha walks a thin line. It is funded largely by Christian evangelicals who sympathize with Israel. If the organization insists too loudly on justice, Israelis may end their involvement and funding could be affected. On the other hand, if Musalaha takes a more neutral position on political issues, Palestinians may consider it to be normalizing the occupation and also stop participating.

I mentioned earlier that Musalaha — actually one of the many organizations composed of Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace and justice in Palestine-Israel — particularly interested me because its leadership is Christian and its efforts are based on Christian principles. As I studied it, I became curious about just how effective Musalaha has been in achieving its goals. It makes sense to me that Musalaha says it measures the success of fulfilling its mission statement when it observes tangible changes in people’s lives.

There is a recognizable progression in these changes. In the first stage, participants move from their pre-conceived ideas, to curiosity about the “other,” to enthusiasm about cultivating relationships. However, there may be a second stage where they find it impossible to continue with Musalaha’s program — as they put it, if they are barely able to look at each other, how can they sit down and talk? But for those who do press on, a third stage is entered, where both sides mature in the ability to understand that although all have genuine grievances, each is a human being longing for peace and security.

In this recognition there is elation and triumph. It means participants are ready and eager to begin communicating and relating to each other, to remain committed to continuing fellowship and to building new bridges between diverse communities. These folks are passionately determined to work within Musalaha to bring down the longstanding barriers between Palestinians and Israelis. Where this dedication exists and when it prevails, one indeed has reason to hope that the illegal occupation with all its ramifications will end and be replaced at last with reconciliation, justice, and peace.

[1] The First Intifada (“uprising”) occurred in 1988, the uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.