Whose Side Is God On? (Part Two)
Inside This Episode
It’s a tract of land no larger than Massachusetts, but in terms of its geopolitical importance, the Holy Land is larger than life. In the aftermath of recent escalations in violence between Hamas militants and Israel’s defense forces, Maybe God presents a series of honest, raw conversations from the Holy Land between host Eric Huffman and real people on all sides of this consequential crisis.
Part two of "Whose Side Is God On?" features Bob Lang, a Jewish settler in the West Bank, and Daoud Nassar, an Arab farmer who runs the Tent of Nations. To support the Tent of Nations, visit www.tentofnations.org today.
"THAT'S THE ONLY WAY WE'RE GOING TO GET TO PEACE. THE ONLY WAY TO GET TO PEACE IS THROUGH EQUALITY." - BOB LANG
"WE REFUSE TO HATE, AND NO ONE CAN FORCE US TO HATE. WE BELIEVE THAT ALL PEOPLE ARE CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD, AND THEY ARE NOT CREATED TO HATE EACH OTHER." - DAOUD NASSAR
Eric Huffman: I've never been to a settlement before. It's kind of nerve-racking for some reasons.
Eric Huffman: Just always heard about these places and never really knew like how to visualize them. Looks like a regular neighborhood. Looks like a retirement settlement. It does. It looks like something you'd find in South Florida, a Jewish retirement settlement. I think they're leaving, if you want their spot.
Man: I think there's somebody just pulled out.
Eric Huffman: She started her car and now she's not leaving.
Man: Then she got her seatbelt.
Eric Huffman: She's taking her time for the Gentiles. Today on Maybe God. My first ever trip inside a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where I was determined to find out what goes on inside the mind of a Zionist settler, and my conversation with the Arab farmer who lives up the road from the settlement, a man who I believe holds the only key capable of unlocking this stalemate. It's part two of maybe God's trip to the Holy Land, in search of the answer to the most controversial question in all the land, whose side is God on?
Eric Huffman: You're listening to Maybe God, I am Eric Huffman.
Hey, everyone, before jumping in, I want to urge you to share these episodes with your family and your friends, as well as all the other Maybe God episodes that you found compelling. And please be sure to leave us your glowing reviews on Apple Podcasts or your podcast platform of choice. Thank you.
We created Maybe God to address some of the toughest issues people are facing today, through storytelling and some honest conversation. We expect you to be challenged by what you hear. That means listening to people that you may not agree with. For you that may have been Ranya's interview in part one of Whose Side is God On? She's the Palestinian woman who believes that Jerusalem belongs to Palestine and only to Palestine. Or it may be the man in my next interview who is Rania's opposite in every way. He's a native New Yorker who now lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
So we just entered the settlement office looking for Bob Lang. There he is. Hi.
Bob Lang: This is Bob Lang.
Eric Huffman: Bob Lang, Eric Huffman. Nice to meet you. This is my wife Geovanna and our audio technician Mark.
Bob Lang: Coming in here. We either can sit in here or we can go into the mayor's office.
Eric Huffman: Okay. Thank you for making the time.
Bob Lang: No, my pleasure.
Eric Huffman: Bob Lang is the head of the religious council of a Jewish settlement created in 1983 called Efrat, a 1,500-acre development situated in the Judean mountains, just seven miles south of Jerusalem. The first thing about Bob that caught me off guard was his accent. I expected him to be a native Israeli, but he was clearly a New Yorker. So you grew up in New York?
Bob Lang: Correct.
Eric Huffman: What part of New York?
Bob Lang: A place called Nanuet, about halfway between New York City and West Points.
Eric Huffman: Right. At the time of our interview, almost 11,000 settlers were living in Efrat. And like Bob, almost all of them moved there from other parts of the world, such as the United States and Eastern Europe.
Part of what we want to understand is, how does someone like yourself wind up in a place like this far from your birthplace? How does that even happen? So tell us about before coming here.
Bob Lang: I'll take you step back before Bob was even around. My father was born in Berlin. My mother was born in Dusseldorf. My mother's family left Dusseldorf, November 10th, 1938, the day after what's called Kristallnacht, after the big riots against the Jews and burning all the synagogues, in most of Germany, by the Brownshirts and the Nazis. My grandfather picked up the entire family the following day, and somehow got them out. And they were in Holland for two or three months, and then eventually had immigration to go to the United States.
My father left on what was called a Kindertransport or child transport out of Berlin in January 39. I think it was the last ones to leave out of Berlin. There were others that left later, but not out of Berlin already.
Eric Huffman: Where did they go?
Bob Lang: My father was in England for over two years, two and a half years, some of it in London, some of it out of London because of the bombings in London, and eventually He also went to the United States.
Eric Huffman: Wait, how old was he when he left Berlin?
Bob Lang: Nine?
Eric Huffman: So he must remember.
Bob Lang: Yeah, he remembers.
Eric Huffman: He's still alive?
Bob Lang: Yeah, my parents are both still alive. They've taken all the grandchildren back to Berlin in different trips. And it was very important for my dad to go back to Berlin to say, "You tried to kill us all and we're still here."
Eric Huffman: Wow. Could you tell me the impressions of visiting Berlin with your father?
Bob Lang: Going back with my dad, and when you walk around Berlin with my dad, so on one side up, he goes and says, "Here's where my synagogue used to be." And my father can show me where the apartment building that he lived in was. I can tell what he saw on Kristallnacht, that he could peek out from the window and see synagogues on fire. And if you go with my dad, he can tell you about the good things. The smells of the sausage and of the foods and all these things bring back wonderful childhood memories for my dad.
Eric Huffman: It's complicated.
Bob Lang: On the other side, he'll take you to the square in his neighborhood and he say, "All these storefronts, the glass was broken. These benches were where the Brownshirts sat and here are the benches where the Jews sat." So that has to play into who I am. My parents they made it to United States as refugees, but they don't look at themselves in any way shape, or form as refugees. And if you saw them today and you say to my parents, "You're refugees," they would say, "Maybe we were 80 years ago. We're not refugees. We lived the American dream." And my father was the proudest of proudest Americans. When I was in last summer, my dad made me change the American flag because it was starting to fall down a little and come a little wavy. And my dad is, again, as proud to be an American. He's also proud to be Jewish.
I grew up in a house that was very active in the Jewish community in any way, shape, or form, whether it was in synagogue or other Jewish organizations. And the first time I came to Israel was with my family in 1967, after the Six-Day War. So I was a 10-year-old.
I came in 1975 on a summer trip as a high school kid, and the summer trip became a year trip and the year trip became a life experience. And for my parents, when I first decided that I was staying in Israel, they said, "Okay, it's a phase, you know, he'll grow out of it." And then when I said I am going into the army here, they said, "Well, maybe it's not a face that he's going through."
Eric Huffman: After serving in the Israeli military, Bob met his wife, a Jewish woman from Australia and they've considered the Israeli-occupied West Bank their rightful home for decades. People like Bob are often described as Zionists, a term that I didn't fully comprehend. It's important here to note that less than half of all Israeli Jews identify as Zionists. And Zionism is actually an international movement. Its mission is to populate all of Israel with Jewish people. Zionist organizations actively recruit new residents by offering them a cash stipend and other incentives. In most cases, new recruits find the amenities available on a settlement like Efrat to be quite an upgrade compared to those available back home.
Bob Lang: When people usually hear the word settlement, they think about illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and I as a Jew don't have a right to live here. Well, let's understand where we are. We're right in the middle of Judea, the tribe of Judah, one of the 12 tribes of the Jewish people. I'm not here illegally, didn't take anyone else's land. I'm a Jew from Judea coming home.
Eric Huffman: Do you really feel like it's just been a big misunderstanding? Or can part of you empathize with how someone else might feel about...?
Bob Lang: Look, I understand that Israel has lost the PR war. Most people have never heard our side of the story. Understand that until 1948, it was only called Judea and Samaria. It was never called the West Bank. And the only reason it became called the West Bank is because the Hashemites, the Jordanians didn't want to continue calling it Judea in 1949 when they took illegal control of this area, because that would admit that there's Jewish history to this land. And they don't want you to know that there's Jewish history to the land.
You hear a statement that's correct but it's very misleading. Jews came here in 1967. It's correct. They forgot to tell you until 1948 Jews were here. And the only reason we weren't here for 19 years is not because we didn't want to be here. But under Jordanian control, Jews weren't allowed to be here.
Eric Huffman: Where did they go in '48?
Bob Lang: Those that survived, because here in this area more than 250 people were killed. It's the largest loss of life for Israel in any single battle by the standard of Israel. That's a huge amount of people in one small area. Those that survived or were evacuated or [inaudible 00:09:36] were moved into what became smaller Israel pre-1967.
Eric Huffman: What was that? Where was that?
Bob Lang: One second. Can I? So this is a map of Israel today, this is the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. So in 1947, the UN passed this as what should be the Partition Plan. This blue area was supposed to be a democratic state with a Jewish majority, the orange area, a democratic state with an Arab majority, and the pink area, Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be an international city Vatican-type area for the Holy Basin of the three major religions, both Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
And the area we're in right now, Gush Etzion, just below the pink, had Jewish communities in it. And the communities here said, Well, this is going to be a democracy. So even though we'll be a minority in a democracy, we'll stay in the democracy. In the end of the day, the Arabs, both living here as well as the Arabs from all around, said, "We don't accept this Partition Plan. There will be no partition. There will be no state of Israel or Jewish states," and they attacked.
Eric Huffman: When?
Bob Lang: 1947, 1948, 1949, until armistice. And with the armistice in 1949, this became the boundaries of Israel, between 1949 and 1967. And the area where we are today in Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc, there were no Jews left there. So there were no Jews left living in the Old City of Jerusalem. They were destroyed. It was controlled by Jordan, whatever Jordan controlled, there were no Jews. War does that with, you know, refugees from all over the world.
So for 19 years, this area called the West Bank, called Judea and Samaria, Jews weren't allowed. But again, the whole term West Bank only came about in 1949 because Jordan didn't want to use the term Judea and Samaria to show the link of the Jewish people to this land.
Eric Huffman: It's really interesting on our trip, we've been... the word, the catchword has been "layers". Everything that we've done and talked about has been about the layering of history and archaeology. And when you walk me through this, when you walk us through the maps, I see that the whole story just has one layer after another. That you can't just take today's situation in a vacuum and make decisions or try to come to solutions. There's so much here.
Bob Lang: Not only that, you can't take this in a vacuum without understanding... It's not that simple because obviously there's influences from Lebanon and from Syria and from Iraq, and from Jordan, from Saudi Arabia and from Egypt, etc. And understanding the Arab world, there are two major groups of Muslims, the Shia and Sunni, and they've been at war forever with each other. And a lot of what's going on here in the Middle East today has nothing to do with the Jews or the Christians. It has to do strictly with internal Islamic fundamentalism.
But I would even tell you that the vast majority of the Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists. And the people who suffer the most because of Islamic fundamentalism is not you and not me. It doesn't mean that we don't suffer. But the people who have suffered the most because of Islamic fundamentalism are the Arabs themselves. Just look at Syria, as a small microcosm of the entire Middle East. In Syria over the last eight years, the numbers are between 250 and probably almost up to half a million people have been killed.
Eric Huffman: Many Israelis, whether observant Jews or secular, believe that Israel's strong presence in the Middle East is key to stability in the region. While learning about all these problems can be tiring, learning about the solutions that are on the table, all of which have failed to gain traction can be even more exhausting. On the one hand, we have the one-state plan, a democratic representative government made up of Palestinians and Israelis alike whereby the majority would rule. And on the other hand, we have a two-state plan, whereby the sovereign state of Israel would continue to rule Israel, while a neighboring sovereign Palestinian government would form to rule Palestine, which would require both sides to agree on how the map should be drawn. Both plans may look good on paper. But the more that I talked to Bob, the more I began to understand how neither plan could be viable as things stand today.
You're a believer in democracy and rights and you care for and love the people who share this land with the Jewish people. What keeps you or others who are of a similar mind from going with a one-state democracy option for all people living on this land?
Bob Lang: Look at that, in the end of the day, that's the way we have to go. That's my true belief. Israel by its declaration of independence, back in 1948, talked about Jewish states as well as the Democratic states. A Jewish state, obviously we hope and believe that the vast majority of the population of the country will be Jewish. On the other side of democratic state because we understand that, first of all, even inside the Jewish world, we have different shades of how religious we want to be or not want to be. And we obviously understand that we have better Muslims, Christians, and Jews living here as well. They're not Jewish, and we have no desire to make them Jewish or to push them out. So, in my opinion, Israel needs to annex this area, Judea and Samaria, and extend Israeli law to it. And there are population living there.
Eric Huffman: But you don't want that until the Jewish population is a majority?
Bob Lang: The Jewish population is the majority.
Eric Huffman: So you're a one-state guy?
Bob Lang: That's the only way we're gonna get to peace. The only way to peace is through equality. Okay?
Eric Huffman: Equality of what?
Bob Lang: Of life. Education, opportunity, you can worship God the way you want to worship with respect the way I want to and vice versa.
Eric Huffman: In your mind and that scenario, all the hindrances to travel and the wall checkpoints, all that would be a thing of the past?
Bob Lang: I lived here before there was peace, before there was Oslo. Because Oslo was never about peace. It was about the destruction of the State of Israel.
Eric Huffman: Back in 1993, the Oslo Accords signed in Washington DC, created a Palestinian Authority tasked with limited self-governance of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They marked a pivotal milestone in Israeli-Palestinian relations aimed at propelling the peace process forward. But according to Bob, the accords created more tension than peace.
Bob Lang: Before that, you could live as an Arab, as a Palestinian-Arab in Bethlehem, drive your car to Jerusalem to work, after work, drive down to the beach in Tel Aviv, and never once go through a roadblock. When I lived farther south in [inaudible 00:16:27], the Jewish bus came by once every couple of hours, the Arab bus came by once every 10, 15 minutes. I got on Arab buses. Arab got a Jewish buses and Jews got in Arab buses and we went into each other's stores and we picked each other hitchhiking.
Eric Huffman: Sounds idyllic.
Bob Lang: It's not idyllic but much better than... peace... This whole Oslo process separated us apart. And it wasn't planned through Oslo to build walls and fences and checkpoints.
Eric Huffman: Do you trust Palestinians?
Bob Lang: Individuals that I know, yes. The leadership, no. The leadership, the same way that you would trust the Iranian leadership, I trust the Palestinian leadership. But the guys that come in and work here, and we speak to each other, we've known each other for tens of years, yes. Most people in the world... I'm sure that we could agree on something, we want health care for our family, we want the best education we can for our children, we want economic prosperity for our families, and we want the government to leave us alone. Okay?
Eric Huffman: What do you feel when you hear about stories of Palestinian plight, stories of families who claim they were pushed off their land by Jewish expansion into Palestinian territory?
Bob Lang: First of all, we all have stories, okay? I can give you stories of Jews where their trees have been cut down in areas, where the countries have been cut down. We need to stop all violence. No violence is acceptable, not by a Jew against an Arab, no Arab against an Arab, not an Arab against a Jew. Zero tolerance for violence. As long as there's violence, someone's going to be able to tell a story that my car was hit by Iraq, my trees were cut down. And it happens in both directions. Zero tolerance.
And I can promise you that all the leaders of the Jewish community here in Judea and Samaria do everything we can to educate our people. The worst thing for me is that you hear of a handful of Jewish settlers and understand that there are 460,000 of us that have gone out and cut down a few trees, unacceptable, zero tolerance, and now you think that all 460,000 that's all we do.
Eric Huffman: Hmm, that works both ways. Right? If you try and demonize the other always.
Bob Lang: Without a doubt. And you'll hear today that there are attacks by radical Jews against the Arabs. What you don't hear is on an average day there are between 20 and 30 attacks on the Jewish population in Judea and Samaria. It doesn't make the news. You don't hear about it.
Eric Huffman: Bob shares one thing in common with Ranya from part one of this episode. They both believe that Jerusalem is ground zero in this ongoing crisis and that one small part of the city, in particular, is absolutely indispensable, the Temple Mount, where King Solomon's temple once stood. But since the seventh century AD, Muslim house of worship has sat atop the Temple Mount, and today, the gleaming gilded dome on the rock dominates Jerusalem skyline.
It's clear that a lot of the pain from Palestinians is centered around Jerusalem, and how it feels to them to see the Israeli flag flying over what they call their city, and the checkpoints and security and access and all that, I'm curious from your perspective... I mean, I know it's gotta be sweet to come to your people's homeland and live here and welcome other Jews home and all that. But how does it feel emotionally to enter Jerusalem and see the gold dome, the mosque sitting on top of where the temple stood?
Bob Lang: I hope and believe that one day, maybe not in my lifetime, maybe in my children or my grandchildren's lifetime, there'll be a third temple. That's a decision of God. We don't understand all the ways of God. We try every day to do what we believe are the commandments of God, as hopefully all God-fearing people do, Jews and Christians and whatever else.
We all have our stories that upset us. Jerusalem and Judaism is supposed to be lied on to the nations and is supposed to be a way, how do we work together. I buried my friends who have been killed in terrorist attacks, they buried their friends. So in the end of the day, we need to find ways to clean playing field, forgive, as difficult as it is, those things of the past and find ways to work together for a better future for all of us, find ways to improve the quality of life for all of us.
If I improve the quality of my life at your expense, or you do it vice versa, then that's not going to bring justice and it's not going to bring freedom and it's not going to bring peace. And if Israel was to decide that we're going to have a two-state solution, and we're going to take all the Jews out of Judea, well, we did that in Gaza and we see that it didn't bring any peace—just the opposite. It brought more and more rounds of violence and more and more depression and economic hardships on the people living under the Hamas regime. Okay? So it's not a good thing.
And you can look and you can blame Israel, you can blame them, you can blame both, it doesn't make a difference. The reality is that, well, Israel was there and they were 17 little Jewish communities. There was more stability for all the people living there. If I truly believed that I was the obstacle to peace and if I left my house in Efrat there would be peace here in the Middle East, I'd give you my keys right now and I'd left.
But the reality is just the opposite. By giving into terrorism, that group inside the Palestinian world, that group inside the Arab world that want to get rid of everyone that's not like them, if we're gonna get into that and to pick up and to leave, we're only empowering them more. You need to stand and say, "Here's the red line. And if you pass the red line, I'm going to smack you and I'm going to smack you so hard that you're not even going to close next time to the red line."
I don't understand why there are bad people in the world. But unfortunately, there are bad people in the world. And we, hopefully, the good people in the world, can stand together and empower all the good people in the world to stop the bad people in the world.
Eric Huffman: Just like it was difficult to find fault with Ranya's testimony, it's hard to argue with Bob's rationale. Both of their worldviews have been shaped by their unique experiences of fear and loss. While Ranya's fear and loss are happening right now in real-time, people like Bob are still reeling and reacting to the trauma Jewish people have endured in the recent past, in particular the mid-20th century.
Neither testimony should be silenced or set aside. But neither should we justify any acts of violence or seizure of land. As unsettling as it may be to hear Ranya suggest that Israeli flag should never fly over Jerusalem, it was even more troubling to me to visit Efrat and to see how many other settlements have recently been built or are now being built on land taken from Palestinian families who, in many cases, have lived there for generations. I left Efrat feeling doubtful that we'll have peace in the Holy Land anytime soon.
While there are many Jews who agree with Bob's perspective and there are many Palestinians who agree with Ranya, the best-kept secret in his conflict is the prevalence of worldviews that do not conform to the typical narratives in the news. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, more than half of Israeli Jews do not support the Zionist cause, which comes as a surprise to most Americans. Even more surprising is the witness of modern-day Palestinian Christians, like the last person we spoke with on our trip.
Daoud Nassar: Well, my name is Daoud, which is the Arabic name for David and I was born in Bethlehem in 1970. So grew up in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. I finished my school in 1989 where then I went to Austria, and I visited a Bible school there and came back in 1991, studied here.
Eric Huffman: Tell me about the place you grew up, like your home when you were young.
Daoud Nassar: I grew up in Bethlehem and on the farm that my family has since 1916.
Eric Huffman: Your family's had this farm since 1916?
Daoud Nassar: 1916.
Eric Huffman: How large of a farm is it?
Daoud Nassar: The farm is about 100 acres. The land was bought by my grandfather in 1916 and then later on, you know, my father and uncle took over, continued farming land. By the way, they were living in caves at that time.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Daoud Nassar: It's like in the biblical time.
Eric Huffman: Right.
Daoud Nassar: My father was evangelist. So I was growing up in a Palestinian Christian family.
Eric Huffman: At what age did you become a Christian in your own right?
Daoud Nassar: Well, we always say here, the only thing we exported from here is Christianity. We are Christians from the beginning, the first followers of Christ. It's not like something that we got from Europe or from the Western countries. My father was a Christian, my grandfather was a Christian, and you follow the generation, four, five, six generations Christians.
So being an Arab and Christian is something normal because the Arab culture is older than Islam as a religion. So Islam came to the country here 600-something years after Christ, right? Of course, here, Muslims and Christians, you know, we live together. Like being a Christian, my neighbor is a Muslim, the other neighbor might be a Jew. So this was something normal.
Eric Huffman: Right. So for someone who's never been there, describe for me what it would be like to walk or drive up to your farm for the first time. What would I see?
Daoud Nassar: Well, you know, the farm is located southwest of Bethlehem. It's about six miles from here and we are about 3,000 feet above sea level. It's wonderful and especially with the sunset. You know, for us biblically, you know, it's like walking up to the mount of the Lord. So it's nice.
Eric Huffman: Sounds like heaven. So what kind of crops did you grow on this farm?
Daoud Nassar: On the farm, we used to do vegetables, but also mostly grapes and olives. And of course, we have almonds, we have figs. My family used to produce wine until 1936.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Daoud Nassar: That year there was a big, big damage, people came to the farm and destroyed grape trees from the farm. And so for my father and uncle, it was like, you know, the end of the story at that time, and then they started from below zero. But of course, the situation was getting more difficult. My father died in 1976 and he left my mother with nine children, the oldest 20 years old, and the youngest three years old. So I was five and a half years old when my father passed away.
Eric Huffman: What happened to the farm when your dad died?
Daoud Nassar: Well, you know, we continued, because we grew up connected with the land. So my mother continued, my older brothers and sisters they continued, you know, working on the farm.
Eric Huffman: Tell me more about that. Because for our listeners, American listeners, the notion of being connected to the land is a foreign concept. What does it mean to your dad back then to be connected to the land?
Daoud Nassar: I always say, you know, Jesus was a farmer. Because when He preached, He was talking about the parables or the planting seeds, planting trees, or the fig tree, or this and that tree.
Eric Huffman: Clearing the rocks from the field.
Daoud Nassar: Exactly. For us, we grew up living that. We grew up seeing, you know, how farmers, you know, plowing the land, planting seeds, and all of that. So, the land, it becomes a part of our identity and our faith. So while we are working the land, we are, you know, somehow remembering all those stories, and we are growing in our faith by being on the land. So that's why the land has a different meaning for us. It's like becoming part of our identity.
Even here in the land full of conflicts, we feel the land is a place of feeling. That's why, you know, we grew up protecting the land. Like you feel when you plant the trees, you see the trees growing like your own child. So you have a different connection with the soil. You know, you respect the land.
Eric Huffman: Yeah, it's fascinating. So, you mentioned something traumatic happening in the 30s when many of the trees, the grapes, vines were uprooted. Who did that and what was that about?
Daoud Nassar: Well, it was a difficult year at that time, you know, with the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Jewish immigrants, the British, and all of that. So until now, we really don't know who did it at that time, but we still have the paper when my father and uncle went to the British police to claim damage, that about 25,000 trees were destroyed.
Eric Huffman: 25,000.
Daoud Nassar: Grape trees.
Eric Huffman: My goodness. So they were producing wine and selling wine to Europe. It was difficult for my father and uncle growing up years and years. And then like, let us say, in a couple of hours or whatever, nothing left for them.
Eric Huffman: They had to start all over.
Daoud Nassar: Yeah. And then of course year by year the political situation became more difficult. Like '47, '48 made it also more difficult for them to work. But years and years, they managed to keep the farm and also invest the Spirit in us to continue the journey.
Eric Huffman: So I understand you and your family stood strong on the land. Did the land around you change hands?
Daoud Nassar: Well, you know, after 1967 when the Israelis came and controlled the West Bank, things were starting to change politically. For example, like building settlements. In our area at the farm... So the situation was changing around us in the 80s. You started seeing on hilltops like houses with European style.
Eric Huffman: Today, the Nassar family farm sits in the Israeli-controlled West Bank and is surrounded by a cluster of five hilltop Jewish settlements with more than 65,000 inhabitants from all over the world.
Daoud Nassar: It is hard for us because we are becoming like refugees on our own land. So for example, the farm does not have electricity, running water. And even we are not allowed to build anything on the farm.
Eric Huffman: Your farm doesn't have electricity or running water.
Daoud Nassar: No.
Eric Huffman: Why not?
Daoud Nassar: Because we have to have a permission from the Israeli authorities-
Eric Huffman: I see.
Daoud Nassar: And it is not easy to get. So then when you look and especially in the evening time, you see like... Of course, we have now a solar power system, but to see around you the light, but there is no light. And then you hear some people they have swimming pools, and then others have no running water, no drinking water. Not easy.
Eric Huffman: Of course.
Daoud Nassar: But at the end, I always say we are not allowed to stop where the negatives are. I always say, you know, we have to go through the difficulties and challenges but one day justice will prevail.
Eric Huffman: Most of Daoud's neighbors before the arrival of Jewish settlers were fellow farmers who were pushed off their land as the settlements grew. They didn't have sufficient paperwork to prove that they owned their farms. But Daoud's family has been fighting with the Israeli government since 1991 to stay on their property.
Daoud Nassar: They declared our farm as state land. And the idea is to confiscate the farm and build another settlement. The easiest way to take land is to declare it as state land, leaving the burden on the Palestinians to prove ownership. Now, because many people did not register the land during the Ottoman period, so they don't have papers.
Eric Huffman: But your land is in the Palestinian territory?
Daoud Nassar: Right. But it's in an area that it's a Palestinian territory occupied in under Israeli control, you know.
Eric Huffman: At least they believe they have the authority to claim it as state land and you were in a unique position with your documents and some legal help to fight them.
Daoud Nassar: Yes. We did not accept this unjust situation. We said, "It's a private property and we are the owners, and we have the documents that prove our ownership to the land since 1916.'' And we went to the military court because we are under the military control of Israel, and a legal battle started with many downs than ups, many difficulties, challenges, legal issues. But anyway, we spent about 12 years in front of the military court.
Eric Huffman: Twelve years?
Daoud Nassar: Twelve years. And then after 12 years, our lawyer received a document the family does not have enough proof of ownership. So we did not give up even then. So we brought our case to the highest court, to the Supreme Court in Israel. Palestinian lawyers cannot represent us in front of the civil courts in Israel, so we had to hire a Palestinian lawyer from Jerusalem who is still representing us until today. So today, we are almost 30 years still in the legal battles.
Eric Huffman: So the Supreme Court never ruled?
Daoud Nassar: No. The Supreme Court tries to get it back to the military authority, you know, like back and forth. I don't know how long the legal battle will continue.
Eric Huffman: How much have you spent on legal fees?
Daoud Nassar: On legal fees about 200,000 US dollar.
Eric Huffman: Wow. Daoud is not alone in this fight. Before his death, Daoud's father always dreamed that the family's land would become a meeting place between people of different cultures and religions, a place where building relationships could be a first step toward peace. The Nassar family made that dream a reality in the year 2000 when they opened The Tent of Nations. There they host international volunteers who help with farming, run summer camps for children, and share their experiences with groups who come for tours. Every year, they host up to 13,000 people from all over the world.
Woman: We're harvesting the almond trees but it's a very bad harvest this year.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Why do you think?
Woman: Because there hasn't been much rain in the winter or it rained at the wrong time. So a lot of them are just bad enough to be thrown away, which is a shame.
Eric Huffman: So tell me about how the farm was rebranded as The Tent of Nations. What led up to that and why that name?
Daoud Nassar: Right. I talked about the legal issue that is going on. I talked about the attacks, you know. And then being in a situation, what to do in this difficult reality when people are pushed to the corner, are provoked by violence, have no hope, no future. It's about their existence. And that's why in order to stay on the right track, we said four things that became our principle. The first thing we said, we refuse to be victims. It was important, although we have the right to be victims in this situation. But refusing to be a victim in order to move ourselves out of the victim mentality in order to start acting instead of reacting and to start acting in a different way.
Secondly, we said we refuse to hate, and no one can force us to hate. Of course, it's easy said, difficult to practice. And we are all humans, right? But we said with hatred, we would destroy ourselves. And we believe that all people are created in the image of God. And they are not created to hate each other.
Thirdly, we said we are acting differently, not because it's a weakness or a strategy. No, it is based on our faith. Our Christian faith is the center of our way of nonviolent resistance. The sermon on the mount is something that we live, we have to live as Christians, you know. And firstly, we said we are people who believe in justice. And all the way for justice is too difficult, too complicated. But one day the son of justice will rise again.
So those four principles, you know, we were very motivated and we stood up and we walked on a different path. And we created on the farm another way of resistance, we created a nonviolent in a creative and constructive way under the slogan "we refuse to be enemies". And under that slogan, we created a Tent of Nations.
Eric Huffman: Wow. Why the Tent of Nations as a name?
Daoud Nassar: First, as the Old Testament story, you know, we are between Bethlehem and Hebron. And Hebron is the place where Abraham came in. According to the biblical story, Abraham used to have a tent to host his guests. And since Abraham was the father of all nations has a tent of only for all nations and this is why we call it the Tent of All Nations, to have a shade and under it to have people from different backgrounds, cultures.
Now with what we are doing at The Tent of Nations, we want to make the land instead of the land of conflicts to become the land of healing There are many wounds that we need to heal. And I believe this is our mission as Christians wherever we are to make the best out of it.
Eric Huffman: The Tents of Nations has drawn attention closer to home as well, including from nearby settlers like Bob, who are constantly searching for expansion opportunities. I was surprised when Bob admitted to us that he'd been investigating the legality of Daoud's claim on his family farm.
Bob Lang: So I've tried to, without success, find out if he really has ownership to the land. And I've never gotten a clear answer. It's not my field of expertise. And if he does, then he should. And if it's his land-
Eric Huffman: What does that mean, though? What would be the standard of proof?
Bob Lang: Documents, legal documents from the Israeli time, from the Jordanian time, from the British time, from the Turkish time.
Eric Huffman: Well, he has that.
Bob Lang: I was given documents.
Eric Huffman: So you're versed in this. You know what I'm talking about.
Bob Lang: Versed in it a little. Not enough to, unfortunately.
Eric Huffman: Are you guys trying to go for that land?
Bob Lang: No.
Eric Huffman: It's not far from here.
Bob Lang: I know it's not far from here. But it has nothing... I don't have anymore. I think I've gotten rid of it. Someone once gave me documents.
Eric Huffman: He showed me some tax documents from the Turkish era.
Bob Lang: Okay. First of all, we know that there are a lot of forged documents from the Turkish period. So you need to know if they're real or not. Okay. And also, a lot of the Turkish documents talk about this rock to this tree to this bush. They're not latitudes and longitudes like we use today. So now figure out what that is.
Eric Huffman: There's got to be ways of knowing what a family farm has been-
Bob Lang: So, again, it's not my expertise. An Arab like three years ago gave me this whole pile of documents, saying, "I own land here, close to Efrat. Literally close to Efrat. And I'm interested in selling it." I said, "If they're true documents, I'm sure that we'll organize a way to purchase it." It came back they were all forged.
Eric Huffman: Well, I understand. I think it's a clash of ancient ways with modern expectations. And I get it. But I also think, on the other hand, I guess you could say, well, the Jewish claim to the land is an ancient scroll. You know, it's a little bit of a tricky-
Bob Lang: No, look, there's two levels. If you look at the Middle East, from Morocco through Iran and Iraq as the Fertile Crescent, and the only people that should be here are the Muslims, not the Christians are not the Jews and not anybody else. So that's one level of looking at it. The same way you could turn around and say that this is the Holy Land and the only people that should be here are the Jews. Now, I don't think that either one of those is acceptable.
Eric Huffman: Are there people that believe that?
Bob Lang: Sure.
Eric Huffman: Yeah.
Bob Lang: Okay.
Eric Huffman: Zionists?
Bob Lang: I don't think that they're very... if they are, there are a handful. We have to look at the real practical side. If Mr. X, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu can prove that he owns this piece of land, then it's his land and we can't touch it. We bring everybody else.
Eric Huffman: But you've set the standard high enough that by that rule you're entitled to all of it.
Bob Lang: No, no, no. Look, Israel says that in Judea and Samaria somewhere between 40% and 50% of the land is owned privately by Arabs. It's owned privately by Arabs. Then it's not the Arab nation. It's Mr. X and Mr. Y, and Mr. Z that own their pieces of family land.
Eric Huffman: You are looking for expansion territory, it sounds like here, because you're looking at Daoud's farm or whatever it is. You mentioned that you had researched who owned-
Bob Lang: No, someone came to me and said, "Here..." Someone came to me, an Arab, came to me with documents and said, "I own this land. I want to sell it to you."
Eric Huffman: Daoud's land?
Bob Lang: No, no, no, no, nothing to do with him, whatsoever.
Eric Huffman: But why did you already researched Daoud land? Just out of curiosity.
Bob Lang: You're not the first person to talk about the Tent of Nation and what's going on there. I did just a little check to try to find out who actually owns the land, where his documents and are they true documents and are they real or whatever? Never was able to get a clearance.
Eric Huffman: Right. They're still coming for your farm, right?
Daoud Nassar: Yeah, they are still. The struggle is still going on, you know.
Eric Huffman: Tell me some of the other struggles you faced since the legal action was taken.
Daoud Nassar: Well, we had the big destruction we had in 2014 when the whole valley was destroyed, hundreds of fruit trees were uprooted and smashed, and they dug a hole and buried the trees into the ground. So it was like very hard year for us. But that's-
Eric Huffman: But that's hard with shovels. That's machinery.
Daoud Nassar: No, no, machines, you know, with big bulldozers. So it was hard for us because, you know, in a dry climate it takes years for a tree to grow and bear fruits. What was painful, actually that the trees were uprooted or were destroyed 10 days before the Apricot harvest.
Eric Huffman: So when you talk about these incidents with settlers from the average Westerner's perspective, it's hard to picture who these people are and where they get their bulldozers. They're not military. They're civilians, I guess. But who are they?
Daoud Nassar: There are four groups of those people. The first group are the ultra-orthodox, they practice the religion, they don't work and they are living in settlements. The second group is people are coming with the motive to live there because it's cheaper. They get some financial support from the state. Then there are groups of new immigrants who are coming from Eastern Europe, who usually do not know that much about the challenges, you know, the political context. And then there is a group, the ideological settlers who might use religion for political purposes. And we have this problem from those kinds of people, you know, do that because they claim this the land that God gave to us.
Eric Huffman: But you're suggesting they're not as devout, maybe religiously, but they're using religion for political lens?
Daoud Nassar: Well, you know, I cannot like judge them now, you know, but of course, in our area, religions are being abused. In the name of God, you know, people might kill each other. So there are people using religion to control other people and achieve their political goals. And this you find them among Jews, among Christians, and among Muslims still.
Eric Huffman: Have the authorities that are pursuing your land by legal means ever promised to lay aside the legal assault and just pay you for the land?
Daoud Nassar: They tried. One time we got an offer, like an open check-
Eric Huffman: A blank check?
Daoud Nassar: A blank check, yeah.
Eric Huffman: From who?
Daoud Nassar: We don't know. Somebody called us and said, "How much money do you want for the land?"
Eric Huffman: And it was a legit offer? You feel like it was a legitimate buyer?
Daoud Nassar: I think so. I mean, we did not continue the conversation. They were calling my brother. We said from the beginning, you know, what we inherited we cannot sell.
Eric Huffman: That sounds familiar. 1 Kings 20.
Daoud Nassar: That's right.
Eric Huffman: Naboth.
Daoud Nassar: Naboth vineyard. That's right.
Eric Huffman: That story must be very important to you. Tell me why.
Daoud Nassar: When the king offered this farmer, he said, "I want to take your land because it's located close to my palace," and so on. And then he offered the farmer another piece of land as the scripture says. You know, maybe better location, more trees, fertile soil, but he did not accept this generous offer. And why? Because he was connected with a specific piece of land. He called it home. So I cannot give you the land of my fathers.
And then when the king offered him also an open check, I mean, at that time, "How much money you want for the land?" He said, "What we inherited we can't sell." Which means, you know, a gift that we received cannot be sold. So we inherited this land with all its good and bad things. You know, sometimes we feel it's a burden on us, you know, to struggle like 30 years, and all this energy is going in something. We could use those years in a better way. But this is a gift. And a gift is a responsibility. I cannot sell the gift I got. It has to continue given to other people.
Eric Huffman: I read somewhere that you had received some support from Jews abroad.
Daoud Nassar: Yes, we did. It was in 2002. The settlers tried to build the road on our land and we stopped them legally by the Supreme Court. We said that they were working on private property and they were very angry because they were stopped. And they uprooted 250 olive trees from our farm.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
Daoud Nassar: And then a group of British Jewish who heard about our story, and then they said this action was done in our name and they decided to sponsor 250 olive trees, and they came and planted them. So we were inspired by that.
Eric Huffman: Of course.
Daoud Nassar: That's why, you know, all things will go well for the people who love God. Out of this, sometimes the struggle we face might become a blessing for other people.
Eric Huffman: Mm, what do you mean?
Daoud Nassar: You know, sometimes we see the suffering in our story, but maybe this suffering can become a blessing. Like your story can become an eye-opening for somebody or a witness of faith to some other people. So sometimes we see the negatives only, but remember, the negatives that we are facing can become a blessing.
Eric Huffman: So in this scenario, you're suggesting that your suffering became a blessing for the Jews who came and were able to help?
Daoud Nassar: Right. And then because they-
Eric Huffman: Bro, that's the most selfless, Christ-like thing I've ever heard. Like, seriously, that's not a normal thing to say. I'm not even sure that I could fathom saying something like that in your situation.
Daoud Nassar: It's the truth. It's the reality. Because those people, they went back home happy. Happy because they started spreading the good news. It's all about spreading the good news.
Eric Huffman: You are the most relaxed, chill guy that I've met over here and yet you have every right to be the opposite of that based on what you've been through. I'm trying to put two and two together in my head, because I've spoken with other Palestinian people and they don't express the same love of all people and the same insistence that we are not victims here. What do you ascribe that to in your own heart?
Daoud Nassar: Jesus said to His disciples, "I bring you peace." How can we understand it in a land of conflicts to have peace? He was not talking about the external peace that people are talking about. He was talking about the internal peace, peace from within. And this is something that drives us to say, even in a conflict situation, we need to feel this peace in order to give it to other people.
Eric Huffman: A few days after we decided to air these interviews from the Holy Land, the same day that Hamas and Israel agreed to a truce, we received some news from Daoud's farm, someone or some group came and set fire to their land. It took the Nassar family and their neighbors seven hours with their limited water supply collected in a cistern to get the fire under control. In the end, 2,000 olive almond and grape trees burned to the ground. The investigation into who's responsible is ongoing.
At the end of our interview, I asked Daoud what political option he believed could solve these problems. One state controlled by Israel, one state controlled by Palestine or two states. And he wouldn't answer. He admitted that the political landscape seemed hopeless. And he reminded me what Jesus did when His people's land was occupied by the Romans.
Daoud Nassar: Jesus at that time did not ask the religious leaders to follow Him. He didn't go to the authorities and say, "Okay, let's talk about things together." Let's negotiate. He worked with simple people. Farmers and fishermen, you know, and they became the future leaders that led or continued the message of hope. You know, for us the same story, you have to think about it that way. We have to work with what we have now. We try to open people's eyes, ears, and hearts, to listen, to see, and understand. More than that, you know, planting a seed. As a farmer, we are planting seeds.
Eric Huffman: Your job is to plant the seed?
Daoud Nassar: Exactly.
Eric Huffman: After speaking with Rania and Bob, I found myself asking questions like, what's the best answer to this problem? How is this ever going to work out? But after speaking with Daoud, I found myself asking altogether different questions. Questions like, what does it mean to take responsibility for a gift someone has given you? What does it mean to be a neighbor? How would Jesus handle a conflict like this one? These questions may seem less pragmatic or even unhelpful to some, but to me, questions like these may be our only hope and the Holy Land.
Although people like Daoud represent a small minority in the region, they may hold the only key that unlocks this puzzle. Daoud brings something different to the table that neither Rania nor Bob can claim. His faith in a God who lay down His own life to express His love for all people is what gives Daoud the ability to change the conversation from one-state versus two-state to how can we love one another.
Daoud and others like him are doing all that they can to be heard above the noise of encroaching bulldozers and exploding rockets, and we need to hear them. And not only because love is the only answer in the Holy Land, but also because love is the best answer to every struggle we ever face. Jesus once said that God is like a farmer who throws His valuable seeds in every direction, on good soil and bad. He plants seeds of hope on every side of his land. That sounds like what Daoud is trying to tell us. And we need to hear him. Because while God doesn't always take sides like people do. God is always on the side of love.
Julie Mirlicourtois: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois, Andrea Gentle, and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. A special thanks to our sound engineers in the Holy Land, Nathan Bonus and Ryan Scott, and to our incredible guides, Peter Miano and Bert Gary. As always, our talented editors are Shannon Stephen and Justin Mayer, and our social media guru is Kat Brough. For more information about Maybe God and to connect with us online, head to maybegodpod.com today. And please don't forget to leave us your glowing reviews on Apple.