Into the Wild

Posted Apr 28, 2011 by 6 Comments

“Do you have Facebook?”

My eyes were closed.  Sweaty and exhausted, the bus’s air conditioning was causing me to doze off a bit.

“Do you have Facebook?” Hearing the words a second time, I opened my eyes.

Standing in front of me was a Palestinian teenager holding out a piece of paper and a pen.  “I do,” I said with a grin.  I took the paper from him.  On the page was a list of hand-written names.  I added mine.

The shared experience of riding a camel brought many of the teens together.

I handed the paper back to the teen.  As he went up to the kids sitting in the seats in front of me, I couldn’t help but smile.  What I was witnessing at that moment was an unbelievably significant act.

As I watched the Dead Sea pass by on our right, I shook my head in amazement.  A group of teens “friending” each other on Facebook may not seem very important.  But I have never seen this common social ritual so laden with meaning…

———-

Last week I had the incredible privilege of joining the Musalaha team on one of their Desert Encounters.  These four-day trips to the wilderness are one of the foundations of their reconciliation ministry.

Everything we did in the desert, we did together.

Several times a year they take groups of Palestinian and Israeli youth, young adults or church leaders into the desert for intense, difficult, uncomfortable but ultimately life-changing experiences.

On this particular trip, I tagged along with a group of Messianic Jewish and Christian Palestinian teenagers and a diverse team of leaders as they hiked up mountains, rode camels and trudged through the sand in Israel’s vast Negev wilderness.

The whole experience gave me a fantastic inside look at the work of Musalaha and gave me hope that their mission truly is possible…

Imbalance of Power

The week before we left for the Negev, I had the chance to sit down with Salim J Munayer, founder and director of Musalaha. He talked about the mission and vision for Musalaha and gave me several insights that helped to put a lot of things into perspective as I found myself a week later leading a camel through the desert…

Nobody had to face the wilderness alone!

According to Salim, the root of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the dehumanization and demonization that inevitably happens when there is an imbalance of power.

By age four or five, he says, children here on both sides of the conflict have developed a simple narrative to understand their world: “We are good, they are bad. We want peace, they want war.”  As with all generalizations, these simple ideas tend to grow into full-blown prejudice by adulthood.

Every unjust act, every crime committed serves only to reinforce these preconceptions.  Eventually, it becomes nearly impossible to convince a Palestinian or Israeli that their neighbors are anything other than “the enemy.”

And so the conflict lingers on…

Shared Humanity

This is why the Musalaha’s Desert Encounters are so brilliant.  As Salim told me, “The desert is a place where the imbalance of power disappears.”  In the wilderness, everyone is sweaty and uncomfortable and tired.  Everyone is small and helpless in the face of nature’s power. In other words, everyone is human.

During our trip to the desert last week, I got to see this concept in action.  We all took turns riding and leading camels through the wilderness, but we didn’t get to choose who we rode with.

Palestinian and Israeli teens were put on top of the animals in pairs, forced to share (and endure!) the strange new experience not with the friends they came with, but with someone on the other side of the divide.

Hiking through a dried out riverbed, the kids helped each other climb down 15 foot high boulders.  Trudging up the side of a mountain, they grumbled together about the “impossible” climb. Squeezing through a very narrow passage, the kids encouraged each other to keep moving.

During group meetings, the teens on the trip got to hear Musalaha’s message of reconciliation.

Although most of the teens on the trip did not share their language, culture or history with each other, they shared a common humanity, and this is what began to break down walls.

Individuals

Having finally seen all of this first-hand in the Negev, something Salim said to me during our meeting began to make more sense.

At one point in our conversation, Salim had mentioned that we “cannot reverse the situation” in Israel and Palestine.  “We’re not here to find a solution,” he said. “But I have a hope for individuals.”

Being an idealistic guy, this struck me at the time as a little hopeless.  Every problem has a solution, right?  The situation has to be reversed on a large scale, doesn’t it? I wondered how nation-wide reconciliation could ever happen one person at a time.

Three Israeli teens chatting with a Palestinian trip leader.

But then I spent four days in the desert with a group of teens…  I watched young Israelis and Palestinians building a set of shared experiences with each other.  I watched Palestinian kids listening intently to stories told by Israeli leaders.  I watched Israeli adolescents goofing off with Palestinian counselors.

Suddenly Salim’s words didn’t seem so hopeless after all.

Advocates

No, these teens will not go home and immediately bring an end to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  They will not have lost all of their prejudices about each other.  But the next time these kids overhear a sweeping generalization about Palestinians or Israelis, there will definitely be a bit of cognitive dissonance.

As individuals, these kids now have the potential to become advocates for one another.  Knowing someone on the other side of the divide – realizing that they really aren’t all that different – is the first step to true reconciliation.

But these individuals are not alone.  To date, over 1000 Israeli and Palestinian teens, young adults, pastors and leaders have participated in one of Musalaha’s Desert Encounters.  And that number is growing all the time.

Every one of these participants is returning to his/her “normal” life with an unsettling realization that their preconceived notions need to be reconsidered; that what they have been taught about each other may not, in fact, be true.

———–

Jonathan, looking over his list of new Facebook friends.

As the bus drove us back to Jerusalem, I looked around at the faces of the teens who had just experienced the desert together.  Some were dozing, others listening to their iPods, a few were laughing at inside jokes from the trip.

One of them, Jonathan, was looking over the list of names he had collected: soon to be Facebook friends.

The list included a Palestinian Israeli living in Jerusalem, a young Israeli man fresh out of the army, a Palestinian teenager from the West Bank, an Israeli settlement dweller…

In the hustle and bustle of city life, these young men and women would probably never have a chance to interact… their lives divided by a conflict stretching back for generations.

But after a simple shared experience in the desert, they were returning home in an unexpected way…

They were returning home as friends.

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Next Steps
    • Although Musalaha asks its Desert Encounter participants to pay a small amount for the trips, most of the costs are shouldered by the ministry. For this, they need partners willing to support them financially. Would you consider investing in a future life-changing trip for an Israeli or Palestinian youth? Click here to find out more!
    • Musalaha volunteers have produced a book full of stories from the lives of those that the ministry has touched in some way. If you want to hear more about how God is moving here, take a look!
    • Pray for the teens that were a part of this Desert Encounter. Pray that they would continue to have their understanding of the world changed and that their time in the wilderness would be only the beginning of their journey toward reconciliation.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Steve S said... 

    Reply

    April 28th, 2011 at 5:10 am  

    WND- Great story, encouraging, hope-filled. Keep up the good work! S.S.

  2. Tasha Simons said... 

    Reply

    April 28th, 2011 at 8:01 am  

    Enjoyed reading this story filled with hope for peace and reconciliation. What an interesting life you live! Tasha

  3. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    April 28th, 2011 at 2:36 pm  

    The fact that this is happening in a region that historically and Biblically the center of so much hatred and war is stunning. They are redeeming the desert.

  4. Gabe david said... 

    Reply

    April 28th, 2011 at 3:39 pm  

    It is simple I said it before, experienced it.
    I still say it LOUD
    JESUS IS THE ANSWER

  5. Cal said... 

    Reply

    April 29th, 2011 at 4:48 pm  

    …be reconciled… one to another…

    Advocating for each other. Using facebook. Makes your head spin.

    This has been a frustrasting situation to watch for the last 50 years, let alone live through. Here is a way we can participate in having a positive impact.

  6. Jaymi said... 

    Reply

    April 30th, 2011 at 5:41 pm  

    I. LOVE. THIS.

    Although it is a long time to wait, I expect that we will see the results of this in the next generation!

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