Thoughts and memories beside the Sea of Galilee

July 10, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
     George Otis Jr. for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps Founder Dan O'Neill in a knocked-out Syrian tank while on a battlefield photo tour of the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973. Photo: George Otis Jr. for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of Dan O&#039;Neill/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Dinner in Galilee, Saturday, July 8, 2011 with kibbutz friends. From left: Mercy Corps Founder Dan O'Neill, Tal, Einav, Hadas, Moshe. Photo: courtesy of Dan O'Neill/Mercy Corps

In Jerusalem, near the "security wall" there are towering slabs of concrete crowned with razor wire, heavily armed Israeli Defense Force soldiers, military checkpoints and a palpable tension in the air. A two-hour drive later, I find myself at Kibbutz Ginosar on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Peaceful, serene, quiet. Two radically different worlds. I am visiting old friends, recalling old memories and discussing the turbulent issues of the Middle East. I have dusted off my Hebrew and can actually carry on a decent conversation.

In 1973, I lived and worked in the grapefruit orchards of the kibbutz while studying Jewish and church history. I swam in Lake Kinneret (the biblical Sea of Galilee) every day after laboring in the blazing sun. I was literally being "baptized" in antiquity.

In October, without warning, the Yom Kippur War exploded around us and we were in the midst of shelling, air bombardment, and the cacophonous rumble-clatter-bang-boom of violent warfare. I was harshly introduced to the geopolitical realities of the region...and to the tragic human cost of bitter conflict. I did a Golan Heights battlefield photography tour of the wreckage and detritus scattered across the barren landscape. Shattered corpses and tanks lay about in a helter-skelter, horrifying still-life vision of death and destruction.

When I started Mercy Corps in July 1981, these memories were still fresh and I determined that we would engage the Middle East to educate the American public, assist survivors of conflict and promote dialogue and peace-building.

By 1982, we were already leading fact-finding delegations to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon. We visited religious leaders, politicians, professionals and everyday families. Building on experience, we have established programs addressing the needs of refugees, survivors of violence and disadvantaged families throughout the region. Lighting some candles here and there...

This week, I am visiting Mercy Corps staff in Jerusalem and observing programs touching people's lives on many levels in the Holy Land. The "heat is on" in this troubled region, but dedicated people of many faiths and nationalities are coming together to make a positive difference with lasting results. From seeds of conflict have come blossoms of hope.

And where there is hope, there is life...