In 1995, I listened to a merchant in the West Bank City of Hebron rail against Christians for their heretical beliefs and their
persecution of Muslims. When he found out I was Mennonite, he immediately stopped his diatribe and said,
Mennonites. They are a humanity people.
This man’s reaction was in a large part due to Mennonite Central Committee’s work with Palestinians since 1949. Particularly in the Jerusalem area, many Palestinians who have never heard of Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists know who the Mennonites are: the Christians who helped the refugees in Jericho, the people who provide a market for Palestinian embroidery in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, who ran the schools in Beit Jala and Hebron, who helped Palestinians farmers hold on to their land and who publicized the confiscation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlements.
In their book, Salt & Sign: Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine, 1949-1999, Alain Epp-Weaver and Sonia K. Weaver, currently MCC country directors in Jerusalem, describe the beginnings of MCC’s involvement with Palestinian refugees who fled the fighting in 1947-48. They then chart the organization’s subsequent transformation over the last 50 years into an agency that has 1) sought creative ways of doing relief and development work under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and that 2) has become an important educational source for people wishing to understand the peace and justice issues inherent in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The major portion of the book covers MCC’s work with refugees, women, students, farmers, children, the disabled and entrepreneurs. The Weavers include helpful context for their overview, by providing a historical summary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first chapter and how MCC’s foci adapted to political changes. In the back, they provide appendices that include maps, a bibliography and a listing all the MCC volunteers since 1949.
The Weavers do a particularly good job of analyzing peace and justice issues that have forced MCC workers to re-evaluate their programs, e.g., they explore the tensions between neutrality vs. solidarity, between confronting the Israeli Occupation or working at reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
For volunteers, the temptation always existed to succumb to the arrogant belief that they, as expatriates in the West Bank,
held the key to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Epp Weavers write.
The title, (p.
97) However, one comes away with the impression that the dedicated MCC volunteers of the last fifty years by and large
entered their work with a humility that allowed them to adapt to changing situations and a willingness to dispose of their
western pre-conceptions of
peace development worker, itself could
be read encoding just such arrogance, giving priority in the work of peacemaking to the role of an expatriate volunteer.
My one minor disappointment with the book is that I had some questions about conflicts within MCC-Jerusalem that remained unanswered after I read it. There are still stories floating around within Mennonite circles and Jerusalem-area aid and development organizations about conflicts within MCC-Jerusalem that happened in the 1980’s. I had hoped finally to understand what had caused the lasting feelings of bitterness I had encountered, but read instead the same vague allusions that I had already heard. MCC has demonstrated that it is able to survive even major breakdowns within teams, that in the end its goal of supporting the afflicted will survive the brokenness that volunteers bring with them when they enter MCC’s service. That such people have still contributed to building God’s reign in Palestine and Israel is a story of great power that all of us would benefit from hearing.
However, I also understand that MCC probably wished to spare the feelings of the people involved, and perhaps such disclosures may have detracted from the main aim of the book. Overall, Salt & Sign is an engaging summary of work that has left a positive mark in a region still suffering, after 50 years, from ongoing violence and contempt for human dignity.
Christian Peacemaker Teams