A MIDDLE EAST ODYSSEY
by J. Bonner Ritchie, emeritus professor of organizational behavior, Brigham Young University
Ancient and modern prophets have repeatedly reminded us of the sacred responsibility we have toward each other. The opportunity and obligation to serve our neighbors is codified in the great commandment, second only to loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength, of loving thy neighbor as thyself (Mark 12: 30–31). The application of this injunction is examined in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Here we find a disciple, after questioning and verifying the nature of the two great commandments, who asked the Savior, “Who is my neighbor?” The scriptures state the disciple was attempting to justify himself, but the Savior took the opportunity to teach an expanded principle.
After describing the unresponsive behavior of the priest and Levite toward the man who fell among thieves on his way to Jericho, the Savior then made it very clear what a loving neighbor would do. The Samaritan had compassion on the wounded traveler, cared for his welfare, took him to safety, and paid for his extended care. The disciple then acknowledged the expanded definition of being a neighbor.
Many of us may need to expand our definition of who our neighbor might be and how to behave toward them. I find that I often ask myself the difficult and complex question of whether I am responding to the opportunity to be a loving neighbor in a modern and, perhaps, too comfortable world.
In all times and all places, we need to ask ourselves this poignant question. In fact, one of the first questions raised in recorded scripture addressed the same issue. As Cain was confronted by the Lord regarding the whereabouts of his slain brother, Abel, he said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8–9). Even in this first and small family there was confusion or denial regarding responsibility to others.
In an attempt to define the proper role with respect to our brothers and sisters of the world, I have found that we often need some additional help from those who may be more sensitive, aware, or can see a bigger picture. I found such help in spring 1989, when I was invited to spend a year as a visiting scholar at Brigham Young University’s newly completed Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. My proposed research agenda there would be to study Arab and Israeli management and conduct leadership development programs. I was considering the opportunity but had not yet decided to go. There were several negatives: children in school, administrative and academic assignments for the next year, and the logistics of taking a family to Jerusalem for a year.
In the midst of the uncertainty, I was invited to discuss the opportunity with BYU’s then-academic vice president. The meeting turned out to be in Salt Lake City and included President Howard W. Hunter, then-president of the Quorum of the Twelve. After very little small talk, President Hunter said, “I understand you are going to Jerusalem.” I said I had not yet decided, but it sounded interesting. He responded, “Can you decide now?” I asked why, and he said, “You need to go and build bridges to the Palestinians.”
In addition to this bridge-building metaphor and a more personal challenge regarding a new neighbor, President Hunter then cited a scripture for my consideration. He said the following verses from Isaiah might provide a new and different perspective:
In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance (Isaiah 19: 23–25).
While not being too specific regarding details, President Hunter said there would be a period of peace prior to the Second Coming and that we should be part of creating that peace. He said we could substitute Jordan for Assyria in the scripture, and suggested that we should look at possibilities for cooperation rather than accept the “inevitable” conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors (especially Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians).
Remember this was 1989, the height of the first Intifada (the uprising of Palestinian youth against the Israeli occupation). There was considerable instability in the region, and even Jordan was still technically at war with Israel. President Hunter said there would be peace treaties and economic and political development and interdependence prior to the last days. As an additional perspective, he referred to a speech he had given at BYU entitled “All Are Alike unto God,” wherein he stated:
As members of the Lord’s church, we need to lift our vision beyond personal prejudices. We need to discover the supreme truth that indeed our Father is no respecter of persons. Sometimes we unduly offend brothers and sisters of other nations by assigning exclusiveness to one nationality of people over another.
Let me cite, as an example of exclusiveness, the present problem in the Middle East—the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews. We do not need to apologize nor mitigate any of the prophecies concerning the Holy Land. We believe them and declare them to be true. But this does not give us justification to dogmatically pronounce that others of our Father’s children are not children of promise. . . .
Sometimes they (members of the Church in the Muslim world) are offended by members of the Church who give the impression that we favor only the aims of the Jews. The Church has an interest in all of Abraham’s descendants, and we should remember that the history of the Arabs goes back to Abraham through his son Ishmael. . . .
A cabinet minister of Egypt once told me that if a bridge is ever built between Christianity and Islam it must be built by the Mormon Church. In making inquiry as to the reason for his statement I was impressed by his recitation of the similarities and the common bonds of brotherhood.
Both the Jews and Arabs are children of our Father. They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides. We have love for and an interest in each. The purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to bring about love, unity, and brotherhood of the highest order (Howard W. Hunter, “All Are Alike Unto God,” Ensign, June, 1979, pp. 72–74).
I grew up in a U.S. and Mormon culture that strongly identified with the house of Israel, of which Latter-day Saints (LDS) consider themselves a part, and the Jewish settlement of the land of Palestine. The part of LDS theology that classifies us as part of the tribes of Israel seemed to be very important when I was in my youth. I felt an unconscious link to these current children of Israel returning to their promised land. Our many hymns with the terms Israel and Zion also imply this direct connection.
In addition to a theological connection, many people identified strongly with the development of Jewish national identity through the formation of the state of Israel. I recall watching the vivid Saturday afternoon movie newsreels showing the horrors of the Holocaust and the victories of the Allied forces in World War II.
Like many others with Judeo-Christian sentiments, I assumed that the European Jews deserved a homeland. I didn’t realize the cost of displacing the long-term inhabitants of Palestine.
I recall the excitement caused by President Truman’s immediate, official recognition to the new state of Israel announced by David Bed Gurion on 14 May 1948. The immediate declaration of war by the surrounding Arab states was regarded as just an unfortunate interruption, and, of course, we viewed the Arabs as the bad guys in a predetermined drama.
With that background, I needed a strong lesson to help me shift my paradigm defining Palestinians as my neighbor. An additional input to my paradigm shift came from my friend and colleague, Omar Kader. Omar was a Palestinian convert to the Church who served on a BYU stake high council with me and who had helped me to understand a broader vision of the Middle East.
Of course, we moved to Jerusalem in fall 1989. During the year, I had an opportunity to get acquainted with many Palestinian political, academic, and business leaders. I learned about their strong commitment to family and about the threats to the family posed by both the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Intifada. I learned that many families were afraid to have their children come to America for higher education because of the perceived violent U.S. culture. I learned that most of them clearly wanted peace, but a workable peace with dignity.
One event during that year helped me to learn even more about forgiving my neighbor. As I was returning a car to the BYU Jerusalem Center one evening after a day of travel and interviews, I dropped my wife off at our home and decided to take a short-cut back to the center. Instead of driving around the west (and safe) side of Hebrew University, I turned left to drive around the east side, adjacent to a small Palestinian village. A group of boys appeared on the side of the road and started to throw rocks at my car. A big rock came through the driver’s side window and hit me on the shoulder. Broken glass hit the side of my face and arm.
After driving out of this frightening and aggravating situation, spending time at the hospital having glass cut out of my face and arm, and a day of recovery, I decided I needed to get more information from my assailants. I visited the mukhtar (village chief) and told him of my experience. He knew I had been doing training programs for the East Jerusalem Community Center and quickly apologized for my misfortune. He insisted I was not the target; rather, it was the car. The car had Israeli plates and represented the occupation forces that had taken their land. He brought in some of the stone-throwers and one said, “We like you, but the car deserved to die.” I listened to their frustration and hopelessness, and while not accepting the logic for violence, I understood their need for freedom and independence. We became friends instead of enemies. These experiences taught me that I needed to learn even more and needed to make additional contributions to building peace.
During that year, I became acquainted with Amer and Rebecca Salti in Amman, Jordan. They had met as students at BYU and had become business and community leaders in Jordan. Rebecca had been the founding director of Save the Children in Jordan and had built on her pioneer heritage in developing a massive program to help the women and children of Jordan. The impressive efforts in economic and political programs by the Salties opened more doors for me to learn and serve. I became involved in leadership and economic development programs with business, government, and Bedouin Tribes in Jordan.
Subsequently, I accepted academic appointments teaching at BirZeit University in Palestine and at the University of Jordan. I spent two different semesters at each of these institutions learning from students and helping students develop management skills. I also was fortunate to teach a course in conflict management at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy.
A moving example of being a good neighbor was observed as we were living in Jordan, while Elder Gil E. Cook was the director of the Center for Cultural and Educational Affairs in Amman. He arranged with LDS Humanitarian Services for extensive shipments of wheelchairs, sewing machines, playground equipment, food, hygiene kits, school packets, and baby care packets to be distributed to needy areas of Jordan. When two large containers arrived with bulk supplies, it was necessary to break them down and repack them in small household boxes. While we were assembling the food and supplies at the home of a Royal family princess, a dignified woman who saw many members of the Amman Branch working on this project, asked my wife, “Why are you people doing this? What do you expect to get from this effort?” My wife responded to her saying “We don’t want anything. We do it because we are all God’s children and that means we are all brothers and sisters. You are my sister.” She responded with tears and hugs and a heartfelt, “Thank you, my sister.” We had clearly found new neighbors.
This commitment to neighbors, including all of God’s children, is more precisely articulated by President James E. Faust, when he said:
Maybe our first and highest priority ought to be service. Not because it makes us look great, but because it is the right thing to do. In our community relations I don’t think our motivation ought to be proselyting. I think it ought to be trying to make the world a better place to live in. Of course, we are happy to share the gospel with anybody who is sincerely interested, but it ought to be the consequence and not the primary motivation of what we are doing (Quoted in a Provo Multi- Stake Public Affairs Council poster, undated).
Another opportunity for service and learning came in fall 1992, when I traveled with Omar [Kader] to Tunis to spend several days with the now-deceased Yasser Arafat, and the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO was preparing for the Oslo negotiations with Israel, and we discussed various strategies they might pursue in the future with the U.S., Israel, and the Arab states. At dinner one night, Suha Arafat (who at that time had only recently married the PLO leader) told me:
Since 1964, Yasser has been married to the PLO. Now he is married to me, and we are going to have children. Those children must grow up in peace in a Palestinian state. Therefore, it is time to get on with the peace process.
Certainly, many other factors were relevant in the impetus for peace negotiations—the break up of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, the election of Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister of Israel—but the vision of Palestinian children growing up in peace in Palestine provided a very compelling motivation. One PLO officer told me that, “In the past, it was unacceptable to advocate peace, now it is unacceptable not to.”
Although I did not realize it, Suha Arafat was pregnant at the time of our conversation. So her perspective had a powerful and very personal imperative. And the vision of reconciliation for the children became especially poignant a few months later, when she gave birth to a daughter, Zahwa. The press announcements heralded, “The Tiniest Diplomat,” “And Baby Makes Peace,” and “Having a Baby Warms Relations with Rabin.”
The image has enormous power. Despite the hard-line warriors on both sides, who are willing to hold out until all their demands are satisfied, the vision of Palestinian children who need love, an education, a stable home, and a world “safe for play” calls for the ultimate in work and sacrifice. This vision of the children became the primary framework of my leadership training programs with both Israeli and Arab organizations.
A telling example of these experiences came after the 9/11 destruction, when many former students from Jordan and Palestine sent e-mails to my wife and me expressing their sorrow for the terrorist attacks. One student said that Lois and I were the only Americans he knew, and he had to tell us that the “terrorists did not represent him or the Arab and Muslim world of which he is a part.”
The ongoing love and affection shared with these students and other contacts in many parts of the Middle East have become one of the most satisfying aspects of my professional career. It is especially rewarding to see many of these former students moving into positions of responsibility and influenced in public and private organizations.
A project that opened many opportunities for making a different kind of contribution and developing constructive contacts came with BYU’s Islamic translation series. I was often touched by the grateful and surprised reaction by scholars and government ministers when I gave them a copy of one of these classic books with facing English and Arabic texts. They couldn’t believe that BYU or the Church would be involved in such a project.
I recall the extremely positive reaction by an ambassador to the United Nations from a Muslim nation when the series was announced in New York City. Elder Neal A. Maxwell was representing the Church and explained the logic behind this ambitious effort. The comment that impressed the ambassador was Elder Maxwell’s statement that there was no hidden agenda; we were engaged in this program because we cared deeply about truth and about people. He said he felt there was truth in these works and more people of the world needed to have access to these volumes.
While there are currently a vast array of difficult conflicts in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, there are also an infinite number of opportunities to build bridges and to convince those of different backgrounds and cultures that we care about being good neighbors.
My experiences have convinced me that I should increase my efforts in actively working for peace in the world. I, and many others I have worked with, experienced a major change of heart as a result of such efforts. More importantly, I recognize the failure of policies and behavior (repeated many times in history) that do not treat people with dignity or address genuine human needs. The assault on human values and the cost of inhumanity is so great to both the oppressor and oppressed that I have become convinced that the world needs a different paradigm for dealing with differences and with conflict. We truly do need to love all of our neighbors as ourselves.
Ritchie is currently a visiting scholar at Utah Valley State College.