It’s complicated.  

That seems to be the only thing everyone can agree on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Even after spending five months studying abroad at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies and making six additional visits to Israel over the past 20 years, I was in the dismissive “only God can figure that mess out” camp. 

However, on a recent tour of the region, I wondered if it may not be so complicated after all.  

Dispelling the myths

Passover, Ramadan and Easter overlapped this month, and for the faithful in Jerusalem who live near their religion’s sacred sites, it should have been a time for celebration. Instead, it was a time of erupting violence.

Volatility in the region is nothing new, although let’s dispel the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ancient battle between two religions. The roots are much less mystical: The conflict was born and shaped by contemporary 19th and 20th century politics and policies. Some of these policies emerged in response to the devastating Holocaust the Jewish community experienced, and the very real antisemitism they continue to bear today.  

Another myth is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is between two equal combatants who want to annihilate each other. It’s not. Israelis and Palestinians are not murderous extremists; they are normal people who want to live in peace. But their societies have become so separated by repeated injustices, literal walls and legitimate fears that it’s become very difficult to know each other as regular people, much less have compassion for “the other’s” experience. Those who attempt such understanding risk being accused of betrayal or naivete.  

The toll of the occupation

These divisions are genuinely complicated by the fact that Israelis today outstrip the Palestinians in financial and political might, which means they live with the type of privilege and recognition often invisible to those who hold such power. Palestinians, however, are acutely aware of the discrimination, bureaucratic violence and physical dangers incurred by living under Israeli military force and policies, summarily referred to as “the occupation.”   

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As a seasoned clinical psychologist with a particular interest in trauma, I can’t help but look at the young Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian occupied territories and wonder what personal price they are paying to maintain the occupation. Israeli soldiers from the organization Breaking the Silence have spoken out about the discriminatory, and at times violent, mistreatment they committed against Palestinian civilians, and the impact that being the perpetrator of such acts had on them. In this context, it makes sense when Bassam Aramin, the Palestinian father whose 10-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli border policeman, refers to both his daughter and the soldier who shot her as victims of the occupation. Tragically, more victims emerge when innocent Israeli civilians are targeted in terror attacks.

Some counterintuitive counsel

I’m struck by the painful irony that this violence is playing out in a place deemed by Muslims, Christians and Jews as “the Holy Land.” As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this place is holy for me too, largely because it is the homeland of the Prince of Peace. Jesus Christ was all too familiar with the daily reality of living under oppression, and I think he would empathize with all the victims this modern conflict has created.  

Christ’s own community was waiting for a messiah who would save them from bullying political persecution, and to Christians, Christ was that very savior. His message to his victimized community, however, was shocking — so radical, in fact, that it’s actually difficult for me to cite it here. 

Yes, he was there to save them. But here’s the kicker: He was there to save them … from their sins. Not from their oppressors, or the sins of their oppressors, but from their own sins. 

I cannot imagine going into a victimized community and telling them that freedom would be found by addressing their own sins. It’s shocking. I envision the reaction: “WE are the victims. How dare you blame us?” No wonder some wanted to kill him.  

“OK, fine,” I imagine Christ’s skeptics replying. “What’s our sin and how would you propose we address it?” As he often did, Jesus answers with a story.

A simple way out?

A lawyer challenged Jesus by asking him who the neighbor is in the oft-quoted scripture passage “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Jesus replied with a story of a man, beaten and robbed and left on the side of a dangerous highway. Two passersby, respected in their communities, walked by without offering aid. Only the Samaritan, an outcast and enemy, stopped to bandage the man’s wounds and transport him to an inn, where he payed for additional care.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked. You can almost see the lawyer squirm — he can’t even use the word “Samaritan” and replied only, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus cleverly turned the original question of “who would God have me help?” to the internal reflection “who would God have me be?”

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, he emphasizes again, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies. ...” 

What justice requires

Such service is noble, but there is also an urgent call for justice. Adam S. Miller, author of “Original Grace,” reflects on Christ’s portrayal of justice in the Sermon on the Mount, writing: “Jesus says again and again ‘I know what I’m about to tell you is going to seem like I’m blowing up God’s law, but it’s not, it’s actually going to fulfill God’s law, it’s actually the very thing that His law requires in order for justice to be achieved.’”

“At the end of the day, what the law requires, is loving your enemy,” Miller continues. “If you return evil for evil,you haven’t achieved justice and you haven’t fulfilled the law.”

Is Christ really saying justice means victims (of terrorism, discrimination or of the occupation) are to respond to evil with good? Mind-bogglingly, yes.  

As I asserted before, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is neither ancient nor intractable. After meeting in the Holy Land with Israeli, Palestinian, American, Jewish, Muslim and Christian representatives across 12 different nonprofit peace organizations, I can repeat with confidence the mantra from one of my favorite groups, Combatants for Peace: There is another way.       

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What does this mean on the ground? It means being willing to see people in pain even when the one hurting is the enemy. It means getting our hands (and maybe our reputations) dirty by going toward those who’ve been beat up, rather than claiming it’s not our problem.  It means finding good innkeepers — organizations and advocates — that magnify our aid.  For some it may mean being an innkeeper, but at minimum it means donating to their organizations … and then donating again.

It means seeking justice by responding to evil with good. It means speaking up and calling for self-examination as to how our own communities may be violating the rights of “the other.” It means celebrating the rights and faith of those who may not share our holy days.  And it means learning about and advocating against policies and practices that don’t represent the values of true justice and Good Samaritan-ship. 

In other words: Love your neighbor. This kind of love isn’t sweet or naive. It’s undeniably, brazenly, radically hard … but it’s not complicated at all.

Carrie Skarda is the Salt Lake City chapter head of the Israeli-Palestinian peace activist group American Friends of Combatants for Peace and is a licensed psychologist in practice for more than 20 years. She recently returned from an Israeli-Palestinian learning tour, where participants met with leaders from the U.S. embassies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, organizations run by the United Nations, representatives from the region’s U.S. Security Council, 12 peace activist groups, and community leaders from six Palestinian villages and an Israeli settlement.  

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