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Letters from 'Apartheid Street' - interview with Michael McRay

Author/Peacemaker Michael McRay
Author/Peacemaker Michael McRay
Michael McRay

Last month I spent a day in the West Bank city of Hebron with other delegates from the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. The purpose of our visit was to see the reality of how the ongoing military occupation and small radical settler communities affect the daily lives of residents of the city.

Hebron was the site of the infamous Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre in 1994 in which an American-born settler, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down nearly 30 Palestinian Muslims during prayer in the Abraham Mosque. In the aftermath, thousands of IDF soldiers were brought in to protect the small settler community (which is known for being extremist and at times violent) and one of the main streets in the old city of Hebron, Shuhada Street, was closed off to all Palestinians and the doors to the various shops and houses along it were welded shut from the outside. It is illegal for any Palestinian to walk down Shuhada Street, including children on their way to school. Yet it is open to Israeli tourists and settlers. As a result, Shuhada street has come to be known as "Apartheid Street" by Palestinians.

Due to the frequent harassment and attacks on the Arab residents of Hebron, the human rights organization known as Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has opened a branch there in order to record, monitor and document the activities of soldiers and settlers within the occupied city.

Michael McRay is a Nashville-based author who served with CPT in Hebron and, while he was there, wrote about his experience in a series of letters to friends, family and supporters. The letters were eventually published as the book "Letters From Apartheid Street: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine" which was released in 2013. I read his book before my trip to Hebron and when I got back I reached out to him for an interview.

JM Smith: Michael, you’re book uses the controversial term “Apartheid” in the title. Why did you decide to go with that as the title? Have you received a lot of pushback as a result? If so, what have people said about it or about you?

Michael McRay: I chose that title - Letters from ‘Apartheid Street’ – primarily because it described quite literally the content of the book. The book is a compilation of stories and reflections written in the form of email updates (or letters) that I sent home to friends, family, and supporters to keep them updated about what I was seeing and experiencing in Hebron and greater Palestine. I wrote many of these letters from the CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) apartment, which looks down on Shuhada Street – a street many Palestinians call “Apartheid Street” because the Israeli military closed this major thoroughfare to all Palestinian traffic about ten years ago, granting exclusive access to the Israeli Jewish settlers living there.

I have received minimal pushback for the title. Mostly, the feedback I receive is quite positive. I assume those that would disagree with the title just don’t bother to read the book anyway. That being said, I do have a friend who is studying at Vanderbilt University here in Nashville who said that one of his professors “hated” the book. I also had a very passionate (but respectful) three hour discussion with a PhD candidate in Jewish Studies at Vandy who described feeling “sick to his stomach” whenever I mentioned words like “occupation” or “apartheid” in relation to what I have seen in the West Bank. Yet, as has been true for every single person who has opposed such language, when I asked if he had been to the West Bank, he replied simply, “No.”

JM: You spent three months in the city of Hebron, which I was able to visit a couple of weeks ago as well. How would you describe the situation there to those who have no idea of the events that have taken place there over the last few decades? And what should people know about CPT, the organization you worked for while you were there?

MM: While the situation in Hebron is unique in the West Bank, it is also simply an intensified manifestation of the larger situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. Hebron (or al-Khalil) is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, but it is divided into two areas: H1 (under the Palestinian Authority) and H2 (under the Israeli military authority). The Old City of Hebron lies in H2. After Israel secured control of the West Bank during the Six Day War of 1967, some of its citizens began moving back into Hebron (“liberating” it, if you are a Jewish settler, and “occupying” it, if you are a Palestinian). Today, there are four Israeli Jewish settlements located in and around the heart of Hebron’s Old City: Tel Rumeida, Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano, and Avraham Avinu. (For those unaware of the term “settlement,” it refers to Israeli Jewish housing units – i.e., towns and cities – built inside the Palestinian territories that Israel has occupied since 1967. These settlements are considered illegal under international law, and many consider them the greatest obstacle to a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.) The settlers in Hebron number around 500, and nearly 2,000 IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers are stationed there as well (to “protect,” if you are a settler, and to “harass and occupy,” if you are a Palestinian).

The Palestinian experience in Hebron is one of constant harassment and disruptions to any kind normalcy or fluidity. IDF soldiers frequently and arbitrarily stop and search Palestinian men walking through the Old City; settlers take military-guarded tours every Saturday through the Old City, interrupting the Palestinian marketplace; soldiers arrest and detain young Palestinian men without due cause; settlers poison and burn Palestinian farms to try to drive those families out; settlers vandalize Palestinian shops to encourage the shopkeepers’ exit; settlers throw liquid, trash, urine, furniture, and even acid out their windows down onto Palestinian pedestrians walking through the narrow streets of the Old City, etc. etc. Life is tremendously difficult for the people of Hebron.

CPT is an organization that began in 1985 as a response to Ron Sider’s challenge that the church needs either to get serious about nonviolent resistance and peacemaking, or else keep quiet about the cross being an alternative to the sword. CPT, then, tries to incarnate an answer to the question, “What would it look like if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that soldiers devote to war?” When invited by local peacemakers, CPT sends teams to areas of high-conflict all around the world – places like Palestine, Colombia, Iraq-Kurdistan, Canada with the First Nations, etc.

In Palestine, CPT works with Palestinian peacemakers to build partnerships to transform violence and oppression. They assist in nonviolent actions, document soldier and settler harassment and abuse, monitor checkpoints, offer a protective presence for school children, and support Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals in any peacebuilding effort they can. I was honored to serve with them in Hebron for two months in early 2012.

JM: You talk about your interaction with the soldiers, such as Ari, who were stationed in Hebron and how some of them did not want to be there. Was this a common sentiment among the soldiers you met? How do they view the settlers in Hebron?

MM: Most of my interactions with soldiers were not pleasant. Most soldiers were curt, belligerent, and acted like bullies. Granted, they often behaved that way toward me when I was protesting their harassment of Palestinians or trying to interfere in their occupation practices. We in CPT would often get in their way, quite intentionally. So naturally, they did not like that. The few times I actually got to converse to some length with soldiers are recorded in the book, and in those conversations, I learned that those particular individuals felt disillusioned and frustrated with the IDF presence and practice in Hebron. I can only assume that there were other soldiers who felt the same, but I did not have the opportunity to speak with them.

My sense regarding soldiers’ view of settlers is that the soldiers don’t care much for them. The settlers can often bully the soldiers with no repercussions. Teammates of mine had seen soldiers break up fights between settlers and Palestinians where the settlers then turn on the soldiers, kicking them and punching them. The soldiers made no arrests. My guess is a good number of soldiers do not want to be in Hebron. It’s a stressful, tense, depressing place to be. And the settlers are the reason for the prominent IDF presence in Hebron, so I would imagine many soldiers resent the settlers for that.

JM: Why do you think the settlers in Hebron are so prone to violence? What makes them different than other settlers in the West Bank settlements?

In my understanding, the settlers in Hebron tend to be the most ideologically charged of the West Bank settlers because of the location of their settlements in Hebron. Hebron is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It’s one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Also, there was a Jewish community in Hebron until 67 were killed by some of their Arab neighbors in 1929. Thus, a historical narrative calls many settlers to that place, as does the religious significance, therefore creating a fairly charged demographic. Additionally, since the settlements in Hebron exist side by side Palestinian homes and communities, tensions are higher than in many other West Bank areas, where settlements sprawl across surrounding hillsides. Nowhere else in the West Bank do settlers have houses atop and adjacent to Palestinian ones. Thus, settlers who move to the West Bank for primarily economic reasons are less likely to opt for such a charged, violent-prone climate.

JM: As I was walking down Shuhada Street, I couldn’t help but notice how different the settlers’ narratives on the murals and banners hanging along its walls were from what we were hearing from our CPT guide. The banners were all in Hebrew and English, but not Arabic. Were these put up in response to international groups bringing people to see what’s actually going on there?

I would imagine, but I do not know for sure. But it shows the power of language and story. The language we use and the stories we tell influence the way we see and engage the world. Whether we see Hebron as liberated or occupied will affect the way we engage the situation there. Do we call the land Israel or Palestine, the West Bank or Judea and Samaria, the administered territories or the occupied territories? It’s all political. Rarely, if ever, is language neutral.

JM: Do you see Hebron as a microcosm of the larger tensions throughout Israel and the West Bank? Or is it more of an aberration?

MM: As I mentioned above, I see Hebron as a microcosm of the larger tensions, albeit an intensified microcosm due to the proximity of the settlers and the presence of the soldiers. There are approximately 600,000 Israeli settlers living in more than 120 government-sanctioned settlements in the West Bank. The IDF sets up checkpoints all over Palestine. The Security/Apartheid Barrier grabs more and more land for Israel. Water is stolen from right under the Palestinians’ feet. Mobility is severely obstructed. I could go on and on. The situation in the West Bank and Gaza is abysmal, truly abysmal. Going to Hebron gives you a taste of all these larger dynamics.

JM: What in your opinion is the biggest misconception Christians in North America have when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

MM: It’s hard to know where to begin. To start with, I have found that most Christians where I live, in the Buckle of the Bible Belt (Nashville, Tennessee and the surrounding areas), have no idea that Palestinian Christians exist. But Palestinian Christians have been there since the time of Jesus. In fact, they call themselves “the original Christians.”

Additionally, folks here think this is a war between Jews and Muslims because they believe Islam hates the West and wants to destroy any beacon of Western democracy. There are so many misconceptions in that statement, whether regarding Islam, the nature of the conflict, Israel as a Western democracy, etc. But I suppose the biggest misconception is around the nature of the conflict. Whenever I speak about this at churches, listeners almost always have assumed the violence was over faith and culture, essentially the “clash of civilizations” thesis. I hear this all the time: “I don’t see much hope in this one, since the Jews and Muslims have been fighting since Isaac and Ishmael.” Obviously, this is not true. The conflict in Israel and Palestine has not raged since time immemorial. It has a fairly particular origin, in and around the late 1800s and early 1900s with the rise of the Zionist movement in Europe. And the conflict/occupation has little at all to do with religion. It is a conflict over land, water, resources, identity, and narrative.

JM: What did you experience during your three months living in an apartment overlooking “Apartheid Street” that gives you hope?

MM: Two things: resilience and partnerships. The Palestinians are a remarkably resilient people. The occupation pushes down harder and harder to try to drive the Palestinian people out, but they refuse to leave. They bend and bend under the weight of oppression, but somehow manage not to break. They are committed to a peaceful future for their children and grandchildren. Whenever Israel destroys something, the Palestinians rebuild it. They just keep rebounding. You can’t beat a people who refuse to be beaten.

In addition to resiliency, I found hope in the partnerships between Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders. When we had an action against the closing of Shuhada Street, hundreds of marchers gathered outside the Old City, and many among them were Israeli peace activists. Several individuals in various peace organizations (like Operation Dove, ISM, EAPPI, etc.) were Jews from around the world. To see the people on both sides building relationships together to transform the dynamics of the future gave me hope – and hope is a scarce commodity in that land.

JM: How do you feel the Body of Christ around the world can help bring about justice for Palestinians (particularly Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters) who are currently living under Israeli military occupation, without becoming anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian nationalists in the process?

MM: First, if you can, come and see. Visit Israel and Palestine. Go into the West Bank. Meet with Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike. Partner with Palestinian churches to provide support so that the Christian presence is not lost. Build relationships. Hear the stories of a suffering people and tell those stories when you go home. I believe that God is a God of the oppressed. God is a God of liberation, justice, and mercy. So, if we are the people of God, we should be the same. Jesus spent his time with the marginalized and oppressed of his day. Perhaps we should “go and do likewise.”

But, whereas peace will not come to that land without justice – and that means at least ending the occupation – it will also not come by demonizing one side over against the other. Thus, as you say, becoming pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian really benefits no one. As Robi Damelin says, “We need to be pro-solution.” In my talks, I often refer to myself as “pro-justice” or “pro-peace,” but then of course, you have to define justice and peace. Nevertheless, we need to promote social justice, reconciliation, and liberation, rather than retribution, divine preference, and dispossession.

Finally, if you are a person of prayer, then pray. But pray with moving feet. In other words, don’t sit back and wait on God to fix the problem. If the language of partnership is helpful, then partner with God. Be God’s hands and feet in the world. But we don’t have to do everything. As Archbishop Romero said, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in knowing that because it allows us to do something and to do that something very well … We are ministers, not messiahs; workers, not master builders.” Find your something, and get after it. If you can’t work for peace in Israel-Palestine, then do it in your own small corner of the world. As the Rev. Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If that’s true, then you can work for justice and peace in Israel-Palestine by working for it in your own neighborhood and city. Inherent in the call to Christian discipleship is the call to be peacemakers. We cannot escape it, nor should we try. Embrace the vocation, keep praying, and keep moving. A Native American proverb says, “A rocky vineyard does not need a prayer, but a pickax.” Well, maybe it needs both.

"Letters From Apartheid Street" is available in both paperback and Kindle format via Amazon.com