Ally Spotlight: St Louis Friends of Bethlehem

Naive Belief, Doubts, Study, Advocacy

by Lea Koesterer

Like most Americans my age, my impression about the Middle East was based on a fantasy. When we were told that Palestine was “A country without people for a people without a country”, I believed it. When we were told that Israel “Made the dessert bloom”, I believed it. By the time I was an adult, we were told that Israel’s army was the “Most moral army in the world”, and it niggled at my belief. Niggling increased as I began to examine the other beliefs that I held about Israel and Palestine. By reading reports from a variety of sources, I discovered there is another side to the coin, the Palestinian side.

I belatedly recalled that the area in question is called the ‘Cradle of Civilization’. We knew it was well populated in the time of Jesus. In fact it had been populated for several millennia. How could I ever believe that it was a land without people? The area in question was also part of the ‘Fertile Crescent’. 

As for making the desert bloom, I reflect on those 1950s film clips of young smiling Israelis climbing an apricot tree that was at least 20 years old. I connected the dots. The orchards, vineyard and fields were planted by the habitual residents of the area….Palestinians. Its many hills, covered by beautiful stone terraces, were built and cultivated by Palestinians. 

In the scope of my study, I saw a photo of an 8 year-old boy throwing a stone at an Israeli tank, of all things. What does he hope to achieve by doing this? Why indeed. The more I studied, the more I doubted all of the beliefs that I had accumulated during my youth. Still, I did not act. Israel built the obscene wall on Palestinian land, uprooting thousands of mature olive trees, some that were 2000 years old and disrupted the environment. The impact of seeing images online of Israel, the 8th most powerful nation in the world, devastating Gaza and bombing refugees in Lebanon, was shocking. Finally, in a quest for the truth, I went to Palestine in 2017, with Interfaith Peace Builders.

Whoa! The actual situation was so intolerable that it blew me away! How could Israel treat fellow human beings, and the environment itself, so inhumanely? Answer: by dehumanizing Palestinians.

How could we Americans agree to pay for it? Answer: ignorance. When I returned home, I was determined to share my experience with people in my circle. 

So this is what I did. I gathered a group of informed friends and established St. Louis Friends of Bethlehem. We focus on basic values, celebrating the unique and beautiful Palestinian culture in an effort to humanize the Palestinian people and to reach ordinary people. We partner with Voices from the Holy Land (VFHL), which encourages informed dialogue through the medium of documentary films. Since the onset of the pandemic, VFHL developed the Online Film Salon, where attendees can discuss films that are sent to registrants two weeks before the salon. We bring in a panel of informed experts and facilitate breakout rooms for random groupings of attendees’ to discuss what they saw and heard.

In the words of Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Web addresses:

St. Louis Friends of Bethlehem:

Voices from the Holy Land:

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