January 26th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

My Take: An American Jew finds MLK – and a new understanding – on the West Bank

Editor's note: Arri Eisen, PhD., is professor of pedagogy at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, Department of Biology and Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts. Carlton D. Mackey, who took the accompanying photographs, is the director of the Ethics & the Arts Initiative at the Emory University Center for Ethics.

By Arri Eisen, Special to CNN

Monday was Martin Luther King Day. Monday, Barack Obama was inaugurated president for the second time.

This was one of the few glimmers of hope held up by many of the Palestinians I met with at the turn of the year in the West Bank: “Who would have thought in Martin Luther King’s day that you would now have a black president? If that can happen in the U.S., then maybe one day there can be peace here.”

I spent 10 days in Jordan, Israel and the occupied territories on a “journey of reconciliation” my university sponsored, with a dozen other Americans — I the only Jew among them — meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

We met with Vera Baboun, the newly elected and first-ever female mayor of Bethlehem, a small city in the West Bank. The mayor told us she earned her degree in African-American literature at the Hebrew University; she was inspired by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Like many of the Palestinian political leaders in the West Bank, she is Christian. She is a mother of five; her husband was detained by the Israelis for three years and died soon after his release. Just outside her office, across the square, Jesus was born.

As we stand in the lobby saying goodbye to the mayor, a full-sized picture of Yasser Arafat, waving and smiling at me. In the world I grew up in, the late Palestinian leader was considered nothing but a Jew-killer, a terrorist.

Take everything that is good in humans and everything that is bad, mix it together, pour it in a vat of irony and then boil it down and stick it in one small area. This is the Middle East.

As we leave Bethlehem, the “separation barrier” — tall, thick concrete walls topped with gnarly wires cutting through the land like a knife — is on our left. On our right, says our guide, is the valley where the shepherds were told by the angels of Jesus’ birth. As we cross through the checkpoint, one of 500 in the West Bank, I turn and look back to see a huge red sign warning that it’s illegal for Israelis to enter Bethlehem – as well as dangerous to their lives.

I think of another sign we saw earlier that day. We had driven our bus up a good road that led to a settlement — full of Jews, surrounded by their own fence and guarded gate — and then took a ragged road as far as we could, up to the boulders strewn across it. We got out and walked the wind-whipped path to the Tent of Nations, 100 acres owned by Daoud, a Palestinian with a deed for this land that dates to 1916. The sign on entering Daoud’s property: “We refuse to be enemies.” He fights as MLK would; his right to the land has been tied up in the Israeli courts for more than two decades. When Daoud puts up tents for a summer camps he runs for kids from Bethlehem, he is issued demolition orders for them. He sees swimming pools in the settlements, but his water and electricity are cut off; he collects his own rain water and produces his own solar power.

These were not the stories I was told. I was raised in the classical Jewish American Zionist narrative of black and white, good and evil. Seeing the endless stream of evangelical Christians and Jews on birthright trips from all over the world touring through Jerusalem, I want to stop and shake them and tell them what they’re missing, what I wasn’t told.

It’s not that the Palestinians are angels. When the Israelis built the separation barriers, the suicide bombings terrorizing Israeli citizens stopped. I had dinner with an old friend, an American who had moved to Israel decades before. She spoke of gas masks and bomb shelters and of fear for her daughter, who is in the army guarding a West Bank settlement.

In Jerusalem, I walk out of the Church of the Nativity with our Palestinian guide Nabeel, one of 42 allowed to enter the city (on a six-month renewable permit). He walks with a limp. I tell him, “I now know three men with your name, one from Pakistan, one from Lebanon and now you.” He smiles. “What is your name again?” he asks. “I’m glad you’re on the trip. You know, in America, outside, I have Jewish friends, but here ...”

At the place where Jesus was buried, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, bells compete in aural space with Muslim prayers over loudspeakers. Our guide shows us a side entrance for black Christians who at one time weren’t allowed to use the main entrance. We take it and wind upward. On the roof of the church, here in the middle of the Old City of Jerusalem, a group of African monks has set up their own village!

At the Wailing Wall, small birds have taken up residence in a very resilient plant that grows from its ancient bricks. The birds look out at me, at the man holding his iPhone to the wall so a distant friend can pray into its mortar, at the Israeli soldiers completing their training and swearing to die for their country before this last remnant of the second Temple, at the masses of praying men and women — the women in a smaller area, separated from the men and further from the holiest part of the Wall. I am humbled. I turn and am struck by a huge sign advertising “bar mitzvahs at the Wall.” I wonder what the birds are thinking.

Many, Palestinians and Israelis, talk of how “things have gotten worse the last two years,” how peace is not even an issue in this week’s Israeli elections.

We meet with a group of young men and women calling themselves Kids for Peace: Palestinians, Christians, Jews, Israelis, Muslims. They get together regularly and share stories; they bring their parents together across the enmity formed by walls and fences. I see my son in them. The oldest one clears his throat. “We have peace in our veins,” he says, “We are changing people. We must listen to each other.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • History • Israel • Jerusalem • Judaism • Middle East • Palestinians

soundoff (453 Responses)
  1. DeadIIIRed

    Funny how a lot of people here think they know more than the individuals who live or have visited the occupied territories. Most American stories with pro-Israeli occupation sentiment come from writers who have never actually ventured into the West Bank or Gaza.

    It would be like saying you know more about the moon than Neil Armstrong because you have a telescope.

    January 27, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Damocles

      Couldn't I, perhaps, see more of the moon with a telescope than Mr Armstrong saw when he was standing there?

      January 27, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • Dan Jones

      I can guarantee you that most of the people in Gaza and the West Bank have very little idea of truth or balance, all they know is the hate they have been taught and the lies passed down to them. Also, when some nutty liberal who has already made up their mind to hate Jews and hate Israel, when this person skips visiting Israel and goes to Gaza or the West Bank looking for reasons to hate Jews even more, they will interpret everything they see through the racist filters they have on and they will come away with what they "knew" they would find, and be twice as ignorant as they were before. I have been to Israel, spent a good amount of time there both in Israel and the West Bank, and I have made friends with both Jews and Palestinians. I can tell you for a fact that while both have a lot to deal with to get to the place where peace can be a reality, it is the Palestinians who are further from being willing or able.

      January 27, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  2. Alex

    Church of Nativity in Jerusalem ???
    It's been in Bethlehem for almost 2000 years...
    What other facts from your very recent trip there you got mixed up ?

    January 27, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  3. Chris

    I beleive it would be more accurate to say that some people in this region of the world have similar beliefs as MLK. Let's not make MLK out to be some sort of God, but a follower of God.

    January 27, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  4. Rob

    The Middle east is a s*** hole and religion is a cancer. Nothing good to talk about here.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  5. barbarakm2

    I agree Jimmy Carter's assessment of the wall: it is apartheid. I too spent time in the West Bank and experienced the checkpoints and the blatant mistreatment. The West Bank is Palestinian territory. According to Mr. Eisen, there are 500 Israeli settlements. What's wrong with this picture?

    January 27, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • Dan Jones

      Jimmy Carter is about the dumbest president in American history and he is even a more inept foreign minister. IF and I mean IF the only occasion and reason for the wall and the checkpoints was to make the Palestinians a second class people then he would be correct. But the checkpoints and the wall are a response, not the product of prejudice. They exist solely because of terrorism. Look at that sign at the top of this article, can you imagine if we had to place a sign outside of Denver, New York, or Boston that said" WARNING, if you are black do not enter or you will be killed." If Palestinians will agree to end their agenda of destroying Israel and if they end all terrorism and then if Israel refuses to remove the checkpoints I agree you have a point, until then you are being a confused racist.

      As for the settlements. Do you support the idea of Israel ethnically cleansing Israel today, do you support the taking of their settlements and the removal of all 1.6 million Palestinians? If not why do you complain about the 500,000 Jews living in the West Bank living in their settlements? Did you know that Jews own less land today in the West Bank than they did in the time before Israel was formed? Even the UN admits that the vast majority of the land the Jews live in is absolutely and legally owned by the Jews. So why would you support the theft of their land and support ethnically cleansing them which would be by all definitions a crime against humanity?

      January 27, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  6. D

    Wow. He glosses over the nub of the problem in a single paragraph: yes, the reason for the barrier is Palestinian terror attacks the walls were meant to keep out. The reason for the land controversy is the Arab's decision to reject Israel, subject it to multiple wars, and never to this day recognizing it. If the Palestinians had embraced MLK's ethos, they would today be living in a state of their own. When will the world start putting blame where is belongs?

    January 27, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • S. Dabby

      You make a vialid point.

      Comparison to MLK is unfair. MLK did not die a billionaire like Yassir Arafat (and one ot the welathiest men in the world). MLK was committed to non violence and would find suicide bombers and rockets aimed at Israel abhorent.

      January 27, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • pir faqir

      You need to download a copy of UN GAR 181 from the Yale Law Library as I did and then study it carefully. As far as I'm concerned Israel is not even a 'state' because it refuses to comply with one of the major requirements of GAR 181. It has built hundreds of illegal settlements and can't agree that they are illegal under international law. It is currently in violation of 16 UN Security Council resolutions and has repeatedly threatened to bomb Iran while it holds a cache of nearly 800 nuclear weapons, including one neutron bomb. Iran has never attacked its neighbors, but Israel has. Do you know how Israel got its nuclear program started? I do. Do you know that the US treats Israel like a 51st state and gives it billions of tax dollars each year? Do you know that the Jewish calendar was created in the year 360CE by a group of 9 rabbis who based it on the idea that every man lived to be exactly 100 when the average life span for men 2,000 years ago was just 34-37? Do you know that there is no such thing as a Star of David (Da'ood, Davood) and that its real name starts with M? Do you know that YHWH was originally just 'god of thunder' until the Hebrews (Khapiru or 'apiru) came into contact with the followers of Zarathustra who lived 3,200 years ago? Do you know why you shake hands and where it came from? I do.

      January 27, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  7. lol??

    It was Sarah's bright idea with ye ol' slave girl incident.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  8. Dirk

    I liked this story. It reminds us we all share the same biology even if we have different ideology. Both Israel and the Palestinians need to give something up to achieve peace. Maybe for Israel this means territory and Palestinians this means violence justified at any cost. Hearing more stories like this probably mean more for reconciliation than all the negotiations and rhetoric from both sides.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • lol??

      Being antiDarwin is not PC.

      January 27, 2013 at 9:46 am |
    • Science


      Evolution won in the Dover court trial. ID/creation can not be taught in public schools in US.. Moving forward, take a blood test map your genes.

      Creationists' tactics also have a more profound impact on science education which goes beyond biology because they communicate the idea that there is something lacking or something wrong with evolutionary theory, an idea which is not actually true from a scientific standpoint. This causes students to develop very mistaken beliefs about the nature of science, the scientific method, and how scientific research is used. This cheats students out of the proper science education which they deserve.

      Attempts to use the law to restrict or dilute the teaching of evolution in public schools matters because science matters. As society relies more and more heavily on science and technology on ever more fundamental levels, it becomes increasingly more important that all citizens receive a proper grounding in science and the scientific method. Science education is becoming a key part of what it means to be a well-informed and well-educated citizen of today; therefore, any effort to temper science education in order to placate a vocal religious group cheats the students, cheats society, and cheats our future.

      January 27, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  9. tvrn

    The thing I take away the most is Mr. Daoud... for anyone interested in learning the "truth"... this is the sum total of the issue...

    January 27, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  10. Mike

    Hmm. Seperation wall or security fence? For me it's security.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • rightospeak

      Jimmy Carter called it apartheid wall .

      January 27, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  11. Jonathan

    "It's not the the Palestinians are angels" – wow, you almost had me convinced they are!
    Oh, but then again angels aren't perfect either, they are simply better than normal people, aren't they?

    January 27, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • lol??

      Angels ain't people or vicy versy.

      January 27, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • pir faqir

      Did you know that angels come from the writings of Zarathustra who lived 3,200 years ago and is considered the world's first prophet? If you believe in heaven or paradise (Old Persian paira daeza), in the devil (Old Persian daeva), in the coming of a messiah (Saoshyant), in resurrection, and in judgement day, then you follow the teachings of Zarathustra. His version of creation lasted one year, not the 6 days in the bible. "Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds." Zarathustra
      If you can do this, you don't need an organized religion that asks for money every week.

      January 27, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • Jonathan2

      I am a different Jonathan....I'm renaming myself Jonathan2 so not to be confused with this guy....

      January 27, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  12. Elaine

    Beautiful, I thank you for writing it.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  13. rightospeak

    A very good question : why diid this story make the front page ?It reads like a regular spin of an "unbiased" author.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  14. AW

    This is the truth and truth hurts when it collides with some peoples belief on false propaganda

    January 27, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  15. avaladonian

    Listening to you, I get the music
    Gazing at you, I get the heat
    Following you, I climb the mountain
    I get excitement at your feet
    Right behind you, I see the millions
    On you, I see the glory
    From you, I get opinions
    From you, I get the story

    January 27, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      But Tommy doesn't know what day it is.
      He doesn't know who Jesus was or what praying is.

      January 27, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  16. ignorance of history

    one question!
    why does Ms. Baboun have to go to Hebrew University?
    b/c the Palestinians spend their billions of dollars of world aid on guns and secret accounts for leaders
    there is no reason in the world for any Palestinian to be living in refugee camps, there is enough money and SPACE to build beautiful homes for every single Palestinian
    oh sorry, but then the palestinans would lose out on the amazing photos ops from refugee camps, what a bummer!

    January 27, 2013 at 9:24 am |
    • rightospeak

      ZioNazi , I presume ? Oh, it sure is ignorance of history ! In the US we call it CHUTZPA. Definition : A man who after killing his mother and father , throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. You see the similarity ?

      January 27, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • tr

      Ms. Badoun went to Hebrew University (HU) because of convenience: Bethlehem is only 9 km from Jerusalem, and Palestinians are allowed to study at Israeli Universities. In fact, 40% of my class at Hebrew University were Israeli Arabs, aka Palestinians (I studied Accounting). Also, around the same percentage of students at HU law school were arabs (class of 1997).

      January 27, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  17. mike

    empty article. why did this make the front page?

    January 27, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • john

      EMPTY ARTICLE? and you sir are part of the problem. articles about peace and commonality are empty, that is why there has been no progress, that kind of thinking....sad

      January 27, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Lucille

      Because it is about the Middle East, the hottest piece of real estate in the whole world. That land is very important. The Messiah shall return and plant his feet on the Mount and they shall cleave in half. And every eye shall see him. And every tribe shall mourn for him whom they have pierced.

      January 27, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • Damocles

      You picked a fine time to take leave of your senses, Lucille.

      January 27, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  18. JOSH P.

    I have always wondered if being Jewish is just a religion,why do people call them selves American Jew,I have never heard of any other people identifying themselves with their religion.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • mike

      it was a people before it was a religion

      January 27, 2013 at 9:14 am |
  19. dogmandg

    Finally, someone who doesn't present a slanted story. Bravo!

    Too many only hear one side or the other. Too few actually listen.

    January 27, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  20. Blah

    Satan throws the best parties!

    January 27, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • Pete


      January 27, 2013 at 9:12 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.