Hope springs eternal. This week, as President Barack Obama makes the first visit of his presidency to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because he visits the land where Jesus performed his miracles, a land where the unexpected seems to be commonplace. I am hopeful because the most powerful person on Earth is going to one of the most volatile regions on the planet to listen. Not to bring answers or solutions, but to listen to people from both sides of the conflict. I am hopeful, because I know what this kind of activity has done in my own life and in the lives of many others.
Before the summer of 2008, I was what could best be described as a “default Zionist.” As an evangelical Christian, I knew that the Bible said some things about supporting Israel and didn’t give the situation much more thought than that. Then, I spent a summer in Lebanon learning Arabic and working with Palestinian refugees, and my entire perspective changed. As I listened to story after story from the Lebanese and Palestinians, I gained a greater understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The problem was that I only understood one side.
Returning home, I became active in different organizations that dealt with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I felt like I was being faithful to my Lebanese and Palestinian friends, but noticed that my one-sidedness didn’t build any bridges with my evangelical friends. At first, I thought this was due to their ignorance of “how it really is over there,” but then I realized that I really didn’t have a complete picture either. I began to realize that this unbalanced view would not help me participate in the resolution of the conflict, but would instead keep me stuck perpetuating it. By taking sides, I had become part of the problem instead of being part of a solution. I realized that, not only did I not understand the Israeli narrative, I didn’t really want to. So I sought another trip to the Middle East that would help me understand the “other” side, which I found through the Just Peacemaking Institute at Fuller Seminary.
I was drawn by the idea that it would be a “dual narrative” trip, attempting to gain understanding of the conflict from both sides through listening and conversation. Often, people visit Israel and Palestine and hear only one side of the story. This leaves people with inaccurate, and often unhelpful, understandings of the situation. Not only did the trip help me understand both narratives, but also the vast complexities within each side.
With this stronger understanding of the conflict, I can identify myself as pro-peace, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian! Both Israelis and Palestinians are suffering greatly from the conflict, and now my sense of urgency to be part of a just, secure, and peaceful resolution is multiplied. I have been able to meet people wherever they are on the spectrum of understanding and help them see the other side a little bit more clearly. This is a main focus of the non-profit I now lead: Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU). Our bridge-building efforts focus on listening and building dialogue that leads to greater understanding of the complexities of the region.
Civil society groups like EMEU have the unique ability to gain from interpersonal connections with those from both sides of a conflict to find a path toward peace. I know that this is not always an easy task for those in government, who must enter diplomatic discussions gingerly and always keep political implications in mind. But As Obama visits Israel, Palestine and Jordan, I am hopeful that he will still take a page from my book. I am hopeful that he will see the value in listening to all sides. I am hopeful that he will extol the benefits of civil society groups practicing peacemaking at the interpersonal level. And I am hopeful that we can all take a moment to listen.
Adam Estle is Executive Director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.