Tiffin Sister works for peace in the West BankWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sister Paulette Schroeder spends her days working for peace and justice in one of the most unstable regions of the world.
The 66-year-old member of the Sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin has been living in Hebron for more than two years as part of a peacekeeping mission. Located south of Jerusalem, Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank.
Along with other members of a group called Christian Peacemakers, Schroeder monitors checkpoints, accompanies children to school and mediates on behalf of the families of people taken to jail.
Schroeder, a former Toledo Central Catholic teacher, said Hebron — full of roadblocks, checkpoints, closures, curfews, soldiers, guns, inaccessible or restricted roads and lack of jobs — is a paradigm for the whole West Bank. The population is largely Palestinian interspersed with small settlements of Israelis and patrolled by Israeli soldiers.
“Across from where I live, soldiers are on rooftops and guns are pointed everywhere,” Schroeder said. “Many times at the checkpoints, young men are detained, IDs confiscated, pressed up against the wall, arms spread, legs spread, handled roughly from behind, checked in dishonorable ways to the Muslim culture. These kids have no recourse; they can’t talk back to soldiers or explain that they were just going home. So our intervention a lot of times keeps worse things from happening.”
One day, Schroeder said, she watched a soldier take a young man and keep him blindfolded for hours.
“I asked ‘Was he a security risk? Why did you blindfold him? You’re not taking him anywhere.’ He wouldn’t answer,” Schroeder said. “Finally we asked ‘Do you have a quota? Do you have to stop a certain number of young men?’ and he nodded.”
Schroeder said she often tries to appeal to soldiers — often only teenagers themselves — on terms of faith.
“I often tell them, ‘This is not what your faith tells you to do to the stranger, or someone who is different from you,’” Schroeder said. “One of the soldiers said to me ‘I think about this every day, I don’t like it.’ Another said, ‘As soon as I get out of this army, I’m going to speak up.’ But I don’t know — they are very young. They are doing what they have to do to get a college education or a job, they are conscripted. So they push the women down on the ground, they take the children and blindfold them, humiliate young men at the gates, they do what their captains tell them.”
Of the 250 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, about 30 percent, including five in Hebron, are ideological, Schroeder said.
“Ideological settlers think differently than a lot of the settlers,” Schroeder said. “These groups really and sincerely believe that this is really and truly their land alone and the Palestinians need to get out.”
Schroeder said she and other team members were once attacked by three settler teenagers as their teacher encouraged them.
“I wasn’t hurt badly, but I was traumatized,” Schroeder said. “The teacher stood there shaking her finger at us, while the three kids stood there kicking and hitting and pushing and trying to steal our cameras. They tore off our caps — it was January, so it was cold. There was a soldier standing maybe 10 meters behind me. Finally, he came and shooed them off. I think some of these settlers have been convinced that anyone who works for the sake of the Palestinians is on the wrong side.”
Schroeder said the peacemakers are committed to preventing and de-escalating violence and work with any group, including Israelis, who shares their goal.
“We are working for people — not just one side,” Schroeder said. “This world is not meant to be in conflict all the time. Every human being has dignity and needs to be treated that way.”
Schroeder said she cherishes the small successes.
“Whenever we see the soldiers hand back the IDs rather quickly when we are present, we feel that is a small success. Whenever we plead for a kid who is taken away to prison for allegedly throwing a stone, if we are heard and maybe the sentence is lessoned, we feel that is a small success,” Schroeder said. “The successes are few, but the Palestinians know that in the international audience they can have a voice. They keep saying to us, use your pens, your cameras, show what’s really going on. That makes me have comfort and hope that slowly, slowly a collective consciousness is moving toward greater justice.”
Schroeder said she joined the sisterhood because she wanted to give her life to the poor.
“I didn’t think of myself as an educator at that time, but I’ve discovered that’s what I am,” Schroeder said. “I asked to go to Hebron. I turned 64 and I felt like I still had really good energy and I always wanted to risk more and to speak for people who don’t have a voice.”
When she got there, Schroeder saw quickly that the situation is not how many Americans perceive it.
“There has been a myth built up that it is so scary to go to Hebron because all these Arabs are terrorists and I want so much to dispel that; I have not found that at all,” Schroeder said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about this. I want so much to show the real face I have discovered in the Palestinian people.
“I had been trained to think from my earlier years and from the media that the Islamic faith did not tolerate Christianity. I don’t find any of that true there; my Palestinian neighbors have been nothing but kind and hospitable,” Schroeder said. “In every religion, there are fanatic people, but the search for human dignity, for peace, for rights for everybody — it’s the same. It’s amazing the similarities we have in our scriptures.”
Every few months, Schroeder returns to Ohio to give talks, raise funds — and to rest.
“We’re not used to all this trauma,” Schroeder said. “We can see somebody beaten up and these are your friends, or taken off to prison and we don’t even know where they’re at. You have to keep working and so you don’t deal with it. So a lot of times I come home and just about cry.”
When Schroeder’s three-year commitment is up, she said she might return to the U.S. and continue to work on the problems in Israel from here.
“People don’t often hear this whole other part of the conflict,” Schroeder said. “The U.S. generally sees things from the Israeli point of view. And the Holocaust is so deeply ingrained, it’s hard to think you aren’t speaking anti-Semitically when we are critical of the Israeli.”
As for peace in the Middle East, although it doesn’t always look promising from the ground, Schroeder believes there is room for hope.
“What’s needed is pressure from the outside and pressure from the inside: From the Israelis, to speak up to their government; from Palestine, non-violent resistance and working to build up the economy; and then international pressure. And if the U.S. would stop or reduce its monetary assistance until international laws are obeyed, that would have a strong impact.”