Tag Archives: Israel

On the Side of the Angels? Seek Peace

Israeli youth, Auschwitz.

Visiting Israeli youth wave the flag of their country over the streets of Auschwitz.

There’s no way to come down on the side of the angels in the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Both sides seem to perpetrate their share of bloodshed, horror, cruelty, and devastation.

Sorting out claims to the land itself would be impossible. Each side can point out claims that go back to ancient times. Is there any way today to determine exactly where Jacob and Esau walked, where they may have erected a pillar, where they kept their herds and staked their tents? The issues of ownership seem to be beyond resolution.

And each side, in the name of right, seems able to justify harsh and cruel treatment of the other.

Many years ago, my wife and I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It was depressing to see detailed evidence of the horrors inflicted by Nazis on the Jews—stunning, almost inconceivable.

As our tour of Israel continued, our Israeli guide stood next to the Arab bus driver and described Israel’s victories and domination over its enemies. We saw Arabs restricted to life in certain areas, required to produce ID on demand.

Wait—didn’t the Nazis begin this way with the Jews in the 1930s?

Let there be no misunderstanding: I am not comparing Israel’s treatment of people within its national borders with the actions of Nazi Germany in my parents’ generation. There is no equivalency. Nazi atrocities leave me unable to imagine how the human spirit could sink so

Auschwitz prisoners

The hopeless faces of prisoners executed at Auschwitz.

low. I have visited Auschwitz. I have seen the bins of human hair and artificial limbs taken from Jewish prisoners, the execution wall for the disobedient, the empty canisters of chemicals from which poison gas was made, the hopeless faces in photos of prisoners who were among the exterminated.

I suppose my sympathies will always be on the side of the Israelis so long as neighboring nations are dedicated to wiping them out simply because they exist. Surely the Israelis have the right to defend themselves. Who can blame Jewish citizens for being cautious and wary, considering that it’s necessary for parents armed with automatic weapons to accompany their children on school outings? Why should they have to live with deadly rockets constantly raining down on their homes? And yet I flinch at news accounts of wholesale retribution in Gaza that includes women and children among its victims.

The recent downing of a Malaysian commercial airliner over Ukraine points out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only part of a much larger worldwide horror: the inflicting of death and suffering on innocent people in attempts to grab power or establish political domination. Pro-Russian forces who apparently shot down that plane have no right to think of themselves as patriots or freedom fighters; they are murderers, war criminals—monsters.

Throughout the world there are groups that claim the right to dominate or eliminate others based on historical wrongs or moral or ethnic superiority. Think tribal warfare in Africa, or “Islamic” terrorists who have hijacked the faith to justify their own tyrannical aspirations. No such group is an agent of God, or Allah. Every such group is an enemy to humankind.

Visiting Israeli youth at Auschwitz draped in the flag of their country.

Visiting Israeli youth at Auschwitz draped in the flag of their country.

I have had hope for some time because of the image here of visiting Israeli youth waving their country’s flag over the streets of Auschwitz. The Nazis are gone. Their evil was defeated, and they were not able to wipe out a people they hated. The right prevailed—that time.

But evil is relentless, and persistent. It blooms anew in every generation.

I see the answer to the problem of violence in the world in a Christian source, the Beatitudes in the New Testament: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Whatever one’s religious tradition—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.—this principle is true: the answer to finding happiness is to seek the peace and harmony that a loving Father would want for His children.

The problem is that in this generation too few people seem to be seeking the answer. Too many seem to be seeking instead to win. The result: everyone loses.


Heaven to Hell in 72 Hours

Oakland mall Dc1912

Oakland Mall

We spent Wednesday evening at the nicest mall we’ve seen anywhere in the world. There are touches of luxury everywhere, beginning with the red or green lights above the underground parking spaces to show empty stalls.

Name a brand of expensive wristwatch or sportswear and you can probably find it here. Models in off-the- shoulder mini-dresses distribute samples of expensive perfumes or gourmet chocolate. People who are used to shopping at Saks 5th Avenue or on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills could feel at home in this place. It is a palace of conspicuous consumption.

In the movie theater, there are plush recliner seats similar to those in first class on an airliner. The popcorn is cheaper than in theaters at home—but we order from our seats, and it is delivered by a dark-suited waiter.

If your life were dedicated to acquiring things or treating yourself to pleasant experiences, it would be easy to think that heaven ought to be like this.

In contrast, on Saturday, Sister S. and I had the privilege of joining a group of evangelical Christians as they distributed clothing, blankets, children’s toys, and food to people who live in the Guatemala City landfill, a ravine below the city cemetery.

Guat landfill_445b

Guatemala City landfill

Each day these people dig through heaps of garbage to eke out their subsistence by salvaging repairable or recyclable items from the trash. The largest flock of buzzards I have ever seen circles overhead like seagulls over a hoard of picnickers at the beach. The scene reminds me of one of Dante’s circles of hell—but it is all too real, all too concrete. No words or photos can capture the unrelenting stench of decay or the feel of grit in your teeth from the fine dust that swirls in the winds of this ravine.

Some 1,500 people lined up to receive gifts and a light lunch of a roll, a Guatemalan tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, and a glass of punch.

The visitors who brought the gifts were mostly Guatemalans, but they also included a visiting family from Iowa and a handful of LDS senior missionaries from all over the United States, with visiting family members in tow. Gifts were donated by both businesses and individuals; several hundred of the blankets were provided by LDS missionaries.

Guat landfill_460bThe group brought along a generator, portable sound system, and keyboard. A talented musician spent the hours in the landfill singing Christian pop music, trying to spread a bit of the word about Jesus. At the edge of the crowd, a man in tattered clothing and what might have been dreadlocks (or maybe only matted hair) danced along.

My wife and I went home to enjoy long showers—and felt a little guilty just for having the privilege.

We have to admire people so dedicated to helping the least fortunate among us. Members of the Guatemalan group sponsoring the activity, la Asociación del Cinco, have pledged to donate five percent of their income to helping the poor.

But what is the best way for us to help people so poor?

Discussions about the problem too often are polarized. On one side are those who say, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Let them do the same. That way they’ll appreciate what they get.” Others may answer, “These people are so far down they’ll never get out of their hole, and society owes it to them to help. We’ve got to take from those who have in order to give to those who have not.”

What’s the right answer? I don’t know. But surely there has to be some viable middle ground.

Those who work most closely with people at this level of poverty say the answer isn’t simply to give them money. It’s spent too fast, with no lasting result.

Education may well be the answer—in the long run. There’s a public school perched on the edge of the ravine that serves the children of the area. By law children and teens are no longer allowed to work in the landfill with their parents; they should be in school. La Asociación del Cinco also has a school to help some of the children eight to 12 years old.

Human nature being what it is, there are undoubtedly some at the dump who would not take advantage of an offer of help if it required long-term commitment. But could there not be some system worked out to help those willing to train for viable jobs? Perhaps instead of paying back the aid they receive, they could pay it forward, helping finance retraining for others. It seems like an idea worth a try. I for one would support it.

In the meantime, those who are sacrificing every day to help people trapped in poverty—people condemned to live in the dump—have all my respect.

Guat landfill_1681b

Food for the hungry.