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Palestinians Daniel Bannoura and Anis Said stood before an audience of more than 50 people at Lake Street Church on May 16 to share their personal accounts of everyday life under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It was the third event to be presented by “Untold Stories,” a consortium of members from the Evanston faith-based community.

Once doubly marginalized, both men were Christians in the predominantly Muslim West Bank and Arabs in the occupied territory surrounded on three sides by the Jewish state.

But on this spring evening they were front and center. Mr. Bannoura set the microphone aside, saying he wanted no barriers between him and the audience.

“I was born,” he began, “in the fields where shepherds were abiding in the [biblical] story of Jesus’ birth.” He grew up in Bethlehem, one of the only Christian towns in the Middle East. He and Mr. Said, both now Chicago residents, discovered a personal connection as they talked: Mr. Said, born in Saudi Arabia of Palestinian farmers, moved with his family in 1985 to the West Bank home town of Mr. Bannoura’s mother. “I knew your grandfather,” Mr. Said told him.

The speakers told the audience how it felt to see Israeli tanks roll through one’s town, to be tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers storming a Catholic school that dared to raise a Palestinian flag, to endure stops along roads clogged with 450 Israeli checkpoints or to learn of a friend shot down by a sniper for breaking curfew to go to the store.

Mr. Bannoura described the kind of experiences that radicalized him: looking for the first time into the eyes of an armed Israeli soldier, realizing that the promise of Palestinian independence was a lie, feeling the injustice of a fence that staked out an Israeli settlement on land he knew as Palestinian.

The two spoke of hopes raised, then dashed, with the fate of the Oslo Peace Accord, of the Intifadas and a bond between Palestinian Muslims and Christians that transcended religious differences when they “saw [them] selves as one people against a common enemy,” and of the healing that has occurred since each came to Chicago.

The impetus for bringing the two young men to Lake Street Church lies in an unlikely journey perhaps as impressive as their stories. 

If travel to the Israeli-occupied West Bank fails to make the bucket list of the average American, the Arab land the world views as steeped in anger and violence is an even less obvious destination for a group of American Jews.

But in late 2010, 22 members of Evanston’s Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation and their Rabbi, Brant Rosen became “the first all-Jewish delegation to the West Bank,” says Sallie Gratch, who was there.

Won over by the warmth they encountered in home stays and personal encounters in the occupied territories, the Americans found “[our] minds were opened and our hearts captured,” Ms. Gratch says. She adds that it was revelatory for their hosts as well: They were “the first Jews not in uniform” many Palestinians had ever encountered.

The visit “put a human face on the unknown, who is always the enemy,” says Ms. Gratch.

It imprinted on the group a strong desire to pass along that experience.  Not content simply to reprise “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” or “Show and Tell,” they looked for a way “to bring the West Bank here,” says Ms. Gratch.

In the end, she says, “It was simple. We would have people come.”

The opportunity arose, Ms. Gratch says, when the JRC Peace Dialogue committee began planning a program for the High Holy Days. They intended to arrange an exchange between an Israeli and a Palestinian. But the Jews they contacted were involved in religious services, so they located instead two Palestinians living in the Chicago area – a man originally from Gaza and a woman from the West Bank.

The committee invited them on the sole basis of a phone conversation and, Ms. Gratch says, asked that they “speak from the heart” in a “highly personal” way – that they think through a 15-minute message but make it “spontaneous to the moment.” A question-and-answer session would follow.

Both speakers and audience were asked to “leave their politics at the door,“ Ms. Gratch says; she admits she worried in advance about a few congregants she thought might not do that. The event proved to be emotional – for everyone,
she says. But rather than provoking argument, it succeeded in shining a sympathetic light on a dark struggle.

“We have to keep this going,” the host committee told each other.

They invited two more Palestinians and the local faith-based community to their second program. Then they called a meeting for members of Evanston religious institutions, hoping to carry on the series as a “community, not a JRC, initiative,” says Ms. Gratch.

She says she and others stepped aside so the consortium called “Untold Stories” could “grow organically.” The seed took root at Lake Street Church, coaxed by the promise that the JRC would create a template. Ms. Gratch offered to find speakers.

Tim Harrington of the LSC Spiritual Pathways committee was primed to host. He had heard two JRC members attest to their life-changing encounter with the West Bank on WBEZ’s “Worldview” and had seen a slide show of the trip. Calling these glimpses of “life on the other side of the wall … eye-opening,” he found them “all the more powerful … coming from a Jewish [group].”

This fall, St. Nicholas Church will host another chapter of “Untold Stories,” knowing the narratives lend themselves to surprise endings. They allow Daniel Bannoura to learn that in Chicago, some of his best friends can be Jewish. And Sallie Gratch can discover that her involvement with Palestinians and their stories “sticks closer to my Jewish values than anything I’ve ever done.”