Kristin Schwabauer Rydbeck '04
Though there are many opinions on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few have an in-depth understanding of the issues, and still fewer are doing something practical about it. Four Gordon alumni—with firsthand knowledge of the situation, a feel for the pain of its complexity, and a commitment to small but necessary steps toward a peaceful solution—tell their stories.
A concrete wall and barbed wire fence separates Israel from the territory of Palestine. Erected in 2002 during the Second Intifada (uprising), it was meant to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel illegally. Although Israel claims the wall is a defensive, temporary measure, it has led to de facto results—the confiscation of Palestinian land and the worsening of the Palestinian economy. West Bank Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israel without permission from the Israeli government, whereas Israeli citizens are free to live in most of the West Bank (called Judea and Samaria by Jewish settlers) and cross the Separation Wall at will.
Josh Korn ’05 and his wife, Julie (Kopp) ’02 (pictured left), live on the Israeli side of the Separation Barrier. Josh works with Musalaha (an Arabic word meaning “reconciliation”), a nonprofit organization that first strives for reconciliation among Palestinian and Israeli believers and then extends its work to surrounding communities. The Korns are dual American and Israeli citizens; because of this they can interact more easily with people on both sides of the conflict. “More than anything the wall symbolizes the division, mistrust and hate that plagues this land, and stands as a testament to our inability to live together in peace,” says Josh. “We have literally cut each other off and will not be able to truly reconcile until we can reach out to each other again.”
Jessica (Tress) Hulsey ’02 and her husband, Trey ’01 (pictured right), agree; both the physical and unseen walls placed between these people groups must be brought down. Though they recently moved to the United Arab Emirates, the Hulseys lived for two and a half years on the other side of the wall in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and worked for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a small humanitarian aid organization helping to facilitate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Hulseys supported a wide variety of Palestinian and Israeli peacebuilding initiatives, including conflict resolution among Palestinians, education among Israelis on injustices to Palestinians, and dialogue between the two. On a day-to-day basis, the Hulseys worked with partner organizations in community development, wastewater treatment, agriculture, microfinance and microloans, and peace work, attending their events and meeting with them. They spent a fair amount of time educating their constituency back home about the political situation through writing, advocacy efforts with Washington, D.C., and Ottawa offices, and leading tours in Palestine and Israel—trying to give a more wholistic view of the region than the media often portrays.
Josh shares a story from summer camp with Musalaha:
For many Palestinians and Israelis, going to a Musalaha camp or youth event is a completely new experience, and the idea of reconciliation is new to them. Most have never met anyone from the “other” side and usually have very negative connotations associated with them. Many are surprised and excited to see that they are similar to one another; they like the same things: soccer, music, movies; and want the same things: to live in peace and have security.
At camp this year there was a Jewish Israeli boy named Yakov from Nazareth Illit. Nazareth is one of the biggest Palestinian cities inside Israel, and Nazareth Illit is a mostly Jewish suburb of Nazareth. Although they live right next to it and are technically a part of the same city, most of the Jewish residents of Nazareth Illit avoid going into Nazareth itself. Because a number of campers were arriving from Nazareth, Musalaha arranged for a bus to leave from the city, and Yakov was invited to join them. Yakov’s parents expressed apprehension about his riding on the Nazareth bus but consented.
Yakov was assigned to my cabin. A Palestinian Israeli boy, Farid from Nazareth, was also assigned to my cabin. They hit it off immediately and spent the whole week developing a beautiful friendship. They played soccer together, did crafts together, and spent a lot of time just hanging out. It was evident a special bond had been created between them.
On the last day of camp I overheard Yakov excitedly explain to someone that he and Farid were riding home on the same bus and would be dropped off in Nazareth. Although this may seem small when set against the scope of the conflict, it was amazing to watch. This child, whose parents were not comfortable letting him go to Nazareth, was now excited about going because he had a friend there. Once you know someone, the place you fear is no longer a faceless, scary place; it is a human place.
Both couples agree that in spite of their organizations’ efforts toward peace, things are still strained between Jerusalem and Palestine. “On a macro level, governments are tense—when we encounter people who are acting as agents of their respective governments, they can often be hostile towards one another,” says Trey. “On a national and political level our work doesn’t make a difference,” Josh concurs. “But on an individual level it makes a huge difference. If we can reach enough individuals, eventually things will change for the better.”
Trey and Jessica say Gordon taught them to bring God’s Kingdom into the world as part of the Christian faith. “There’s a reason Jesus tells his followers in Luke 13 to ‘strive to enter at the narrow gate,’” says Trey. “It’s not easy to live the way God has called us to live in the world. Psalm 34 reminds us to ‘seek peace and pursue it.’ Not only are we to look for peace—to look for ways to move ourselves and those around us towards peace—but we’re to ‘pursue’ peace, which is why we’re doing the work we’re doing. It’s hard work; peace doesn’t come easily. But we’re learning that walking the way of Jesus and living in God’s Kingdom is part of the reward, the goal.”
Josh Korn continues to enjoy his work with Musalaha, and Julie is nearing completion of her master’s in art therapy. They hope to continue to be used by God to be a blessing to the Israeli and Palestinian people.