If you have been present for any of my presentations regarding last autumn’s sabbatical, you have heard me say that the most memorable experience was a brief excursion into biblical Samaria, or (as we know it today) the northern West Bank. I was impressed because (a) I had not traveled there on previous trips; (b) it is arguably the most beautiful part of the entire Holy Land; and (c) it is home to an indisputably authentic biblical site—Jacob’s Well!
Something else I noticed was that the West Bank doesn’t have the appearance of a poor land. (Often we think it must be such, because popular media continually contrast the affluence of the Israelis with the poverty of the Palestinians.) Indeed, to begin at the southern end of that part of the West Bank, at Ramallah, and work your way north toward Jenin is to travel through some of the most fertile and productive farmland you’ll ever see.
It’s true that Palestinians are more likely to work the land than to own it. But the upshot of such successful agriculture is a modest but livable economy that supports more than a few prosperous villages and several small but vibrant cities like Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus.
The principal discomfort for Palestinians, of course, is that their lands are “occupied.” Their awareness that every decision of consequence requires the compliance of the Israelis (for example, West Bankers cannot travel to Jerusalem without official permission), and that final authority is not in their own hands creates unending frustration.
Despite these economic and political realities, I have to say that I was surprised by two things I expected to see, but did not: (1) in traveling north and south by different routes, I saw very little evidence of Israeli military presence. And (2) I saw no “panhandling,” nor anyone who appeared to be homeless or otherwise destitute. (This was true also in the southern West Bank—in Bethlehem and Hebron. The irony is that there are plenty of beggars in Jerusalem and Israel, but few or none in the West Bank.)
I asked a few questions about why this second point would be the case. The best explanation I got is that it relates to the strong tribal and family culture of the Arabic peoples. A tribe might not be wealthy, but it “takes care of its own.” A family might be managing with bare necessities, but it will always come to the aid of extended family members who are unable to fend for themselves. This—as much as anything—has to do with family pride and tribal self-respect in an “honor-and-shame” society.
Often we who partake of modern, Western culture look to the societies of the Middle East with some combination of fear and loathing. Certainly there is enough bad news from those regions of our world to support our misgiving. Nevertheless, it bears remembering that there remains much of a positive nature that we could learn from these very different people.
For those of us who have experienced the best of what it means to have a family and be a family, the stark reality is that family systems in America and Western Europe are rapidly breaking down. This is producing many of our social and economic problems and inequities. Were Christians today to remember that, in the final analysis, “charity begins at home”—and then work and pray to strengthen our homes, marriages and families—it would go a long way toward solving some of our most painful issues.