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The source of my interest of the Middle East conflict

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


Because I often write about the Middle East, especially about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many readers have asked me to explain why I -- an African-American who is neither Jew nor Muslim -- cares about this subject so deeply. It is a fair question, and I feel compelled to answer.

I visited Israel for the first time when I was 13 years old. The occasion, along with everything that occurred before and after that trip, inspired my interest in the region and shaped my politics toward it today.

My paternal grandparents, like the overwhelming majority of African-Americans of their generation, were devout Christians with a love for the Holy Land. Everyone I knew as a child dreamed of traveling to the Middle East, especially to what we called "The Land of Israel" and Egypt.

For my grandfather, Israel was more than a dream. This little old man, a presiding elder in a Pentecostal denomination, announced to his congregation of 35 members that he was going to Israel and would be delighted if others would accompany him.

That service turned into a marathon planning session. Women went home and cooked dishes and brought them to the church, men barbecued and other members fetched cold drinks. We had what is called "dinner on the ground."

Before the day ended, 20 adult members had signed up to travel with Grandfather. They would depart one year later.

For us, the Holy Land, which included all the nations in the region, was destiny. It was where Jesus Christ was born and was crucified. It was where Moses led the Israelites from bondage, where the Red Sea was parted, where the walls of Jericho tumbled, where Saul marched toward Damascus, where Adam and Eve dwelled in the Garden of Eden, where Mount Sinai was shrouded in clouds, where Solomon handed down wise decisions, where Jesus performed miracles.

The Holy Land was a mythic and mystical place where everything -- including rising from dead -- was possible.

Members went to work raising money and getting passports. They cooked, washed cars, held raffles, begged and reached into their pockets. Within six months, they had enough money to send the entire congregation to Israel for seven days. In the end, 26 adults and eight children went. I was one of the children.

This was the trip of my life.

When we arrived, Israel was not two decades old. Zionism was not a dirty word and kibbutzim was the way of life for many. Our group was a wonder to behold for most Israelis who had never seen black people in the flesh. But we were treated respectfully and had full access to all of the Christian holy sites.

Steeped in the region's history and folklore, my grandfather hired the right guide. We stayed in a kibbutz near the River Jordan. Imagine how I felt, a mere child, actually dipping my toes in this famous body of water, where Jesus had been.

We saw the Dead Sea, and we sailed across the Sea of Galilee, also called Lake Tiberias. As a child, I was there, in the place where Jesus and his disciples had been, where rough waters had tested the faith of devout believers.

Our group walked where Jesus had walked. I noticed that my childhood companions, who normally would have been unruly, were awed by the historicity and geography.

We were in a holy place.

In Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus' birth, some members broke down and cried uncontrollably, Grandfather among them. In Nazareth, where Jesus spent his childhood and adult life, we walked the narrow streets trying to imagine the daily activities of Jesus the carpenter.

Our visit to Jerusalem, the final leg of our tour, changed the lives of many in our group. During our three days there, we relived the agony of Christ's final days on earth. We visited the Mount of Olives and the sites where Christ was put to death and rose from the dead.

Even before we left Israel, I knew I would return often. My grandfather dreamed of returning, but he died without seeing the Holy Land again.

For my part, I have returned many times, most recently nearly two years ago. During my early trips, I was what could be called an unequivocal Friend of Israel, which meant that I sided with Israeli Jews in all of their relations with the Palestinians.

Today, I am not an unequivocal Friend of Israel.

I am a friend of Israel, and I am a friend of the Palestinians. I want peace for the region, for all of its people. I believe, however, that Israel -- with the upper hand, with vast military weaponry, with the power to shut down borders, with the power to detain thousands of people at one time, with the power to restrict travel and determine where people live, with the power to destroy entire cities -- must learn to use its power to bring dignity to the lives of the Palestinians.

My travels to the region and my reading have taught me that the Israelis can change the politics of this enduring conflict whenever they want to.

I had planned to return to Israel this summer. Obviously, I must put this plan on hold. Each day, I look at a coffee mug I bought in a Haifa gift shop on my second trip to Israel in the 1960s. It reads: "Pray for Peace in the Holy Land."

Indeed, my hope for peace keeps me returning to the region, and this desire to return keeps my interest refreshed.

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