A Review of
Letters from Apartheid Street: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine
Reviewed by Wes Magruder
There is absolutely nothing original, novel, or strikingly new in Michael T. McRay’s book, Letters From Apartheid Street: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine, which consists of letters and journal entries during his two-month stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Hebron, Palestine, in January and February 2012.
And nothing happened in Hebron during McRay’s stay that doesn’t happen on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis in occupied Palestine. McRay recounts episodes of random soldier searches, harassment of children on their way to school, and midnight raids and seizures.
Those who keep themselves abreast of the ongoing narrative in Israel/Palestine beyond that which is spun by the major American media outlets are well aware of the real situation. The separation wall built by Israel has further marginalized and isolated the people of Palestine, while emboldening the growing settler movement.
What sets apart this retelling of the same-old, same-old in Palestine is McRay’s clear-eyed, lucid reflections on what he experiences and sees. For one, McRay understands the danger of the single story — a story which tells only one side, or perspective, of an event or situation. Single stories produce stereotypes, which are always incomplete and misleading.
In particular, McRay struggles with stereotyping Israeli soldiers, whom he witnesses being callous, hostile, indifferent, petty, and violent. He struggles in these pages to humanize the soldiers, to strike up conversations with them, and to listen to their stories. He wants desperately to “love the enemy,” but finds it difficult, especially in tense, dangerous times.
Yet this is precisely the place where so many of us struggle. This is the point where our embrace of nonviolence or “the Jesus way” falters. We also find it hard to practice love of enemy. As we watch McRay wrestle to enflesh the gospel, to incarnate God’s good news, we are inspired to re-engage the struggle ourselves.
We also tend to struggle, like McRay, with the question of the efficacy of our activism. There is very little evidence that McRay or CPT or any other nonviolent resistance agency is making great strides in ending the occupation. If anything, despite our best efforts, things are getting worse.
In the book’s foreword, Lee C. Camp directly addresses this dilemma when he notes that “it’s not clear why we do such things when we can see no clear fruit.” He suspects that there are two good reasons: one, that the action itself keeps our own souls fertile and ready for reconciliation, which might happen in unexpected ways and times; and two, because there isn’t really anything else to do! The work of peacemaking is Jesus’ call to us, and we can but respond faithfully.
Even though a reader doesn’t learn anything new about the Palestinian struggle, there is a vital need for books like this to continue to appear on the market. Over time, the sheer weight of first-person accounts of the injustices and oppression going on everyday will surely make a dent in the occupation.
This is certainly part of the strategy of CPT, which has been documenting stories of injustice in Palestine since 1992. In particular, teams try to “get in the way of violence,” as a preventive measure, by walking with Palestinian children on their way to school, accompanying Palestinian shepherds and farmers to their fields where they are often assaulted by Israeli settlers, and also monitoring treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. Team members simply practice the nonviolent action of presence, while making sure to photograph and videotape interactions that become problematic and violent.
CPT recently released a report, “Occupied Childhoods: Impact of the actions of Israeli soldiers on Palestinian children in H2 (Hebron) during February, March and April 2013” which highlights the problem of child detainment and mistreatment in the occupied territories, backed up with visual and narrative documentation from CPT members. (To view the full report, visit http://goo.gl/t4apB.) Their report gives substantive credibility to a February 2013 report from UNICEF which claims that approximately 700 Palestinian children, between the ages of 12 and 17, are arrested, interrogated, and detained every year in occupied Palestine.
Michael McRay’s book does not actually accomplish anything which will stop Palestinian children from being harassed or detained. But it does add one more clear voice to the growing chorus of resistance. And for that, it is invaluable and necessary and absolutely brilliant.