Jonathan Brenneman packed for his second attempt at crossing the Jordan-West Bank border with a jacket, fully charged iPod, letters of official invitation and 500-page collection of Flannery O’Connor stories.
The lanky 25-year-old from St. Mary’s, Ohio had spent nine hours under Israeli border authorities’ questioning just a few days ago. They denied him entry, saying he needed more proof of his purposes in the country. Brenneman prepared better this time around, eating a large breakfast before leaving his uncle’s house in Amman.
Six hours later, Brenneman came back once again.
Brenneman has been volunteering for a year with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a faith-based organization that supports peacemaking in conflict areas.
CPT has worked in Hebron for nineteen years, where their main activity is walking children to school to protect them from settlers’ attacks.
The volunteers leave every three months to renew their visas and to tell stories about CPT work back home.
This time, Israeli authorities have denied Brenneman’s return.
“They told me it’s because CPT is ‘not recognized by Israel,” Brenneman says. “I asked why that’s a problem if our work is legal, but the soldier just said ‘My commander says you are not allowed.’ That was the end.”
Brenneman’s family in the States wrote to their senator in Ohio, who then contacted the American Embassy in Amman. The embassy’s U.S. Citizen Services called Brenneman in for a meeting, but told him they couldn’t do anything.
“They told me the same thing I’ve heard over and over again: Israel is a sovereign nation. They can deny anyone for whatever reason they want, or without reason at all,” Brenneman said.
Two other CPT members have been denied entry in recent months, but Brenneman is the first to be rejected specifically for being a Christian Peacemaker.
The other two were turned back for “security reasons,” Israeli officials said.
“Israel never gives a complete reason for denial,” Brenneman says. “Why? Because if they give a legal reason, you could possibly challenge that.”
Founded two decades ago by North American peace churches of Mennonite tradition, CPT teams have worked in Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, among other places.
Their self-proclaimed mission is to reduce violence by “getting in the way.”
In 2005, four CPT workers were kidnapped in Baghdad, where they had been documenting U.S. military abuse at Abu Ghraib. One of them, a 43-year-old Quaker from Virginia, was killed.
Brenneman, whose mother was born in Bethlehem and whose father is an “eighth or tenth generation American, very white,” joined CPT partly out of religious conviction. He liked CPT’s belief that Christians have to actively pursue peace, Brenneman says.
“You couldn’t be a follower of the Prince of Peace and just sit back, saying ‘I like peace’ in a comfortable Western way,” Brenneman says. “We needed to go out, partner with oppressed people and work towards justice.”
Despite the group’s Christian title, it does not proselytize. CPT teams include members of other faiths. They begin each day with worship, but in a “very ecumenical” form.
“Although we are versed in a language of international law and human rights, we see this more as a moral and spiritual issue,” Brenneman says. “That gives us a much deeper perspective of the evils that are going on.”
In Hebron, these “evils” include violence towards schoolchildren, assault on Palestinian shepherds and military mistreatment at checkpoints. CPT members wake up before 7 a.m. every day to monitor areas of tension. They bring cameras and write reports.
“When there’s an outside set of eyes, soldiers are far less aggressive,” Brenneman says. “It’s kind of sad how racist it is. But, yeah, just having a white person there makes a difference.”
Some critics have asked why CPT does not work in other conflict zones like Syria.
“If you gave us funding so we could start another team in Syria, we would be glad to go,” Brenneman said. But the severity of Syria’s situation does not lessen ongoing injustice in Hebron, he said.
“If you have to go as low as Syria to find someone doing worse things than you, you’re doing some pretty bad stuff.”
Brenneman is waiting in Amman for a new passport before he tries to enter again. He may also try contacting the Israeli Embassy, which has been closed all week for Sukkot.
“If I were you and I got denied twice, I would just give up,” an American Citizen Services official told him.
But CPT is used to arbitrary denial, Brenneman says. In Hebron, soldiers often block the team from their work areas without justification.
“They have guns and can make up whatever rules they want. Some days they make us leave. Some days they let us stay,” Brenneman says. He shrugs. “We continue with our work regardless.”