"I have to be honest with you-I hate democracy!"
The young Palestinian teenager's gentle voice reflected sadness and some anger. It was April 2004, and together with a small group of other youthful Palestinian members of Remember the Innocents, this young woman was taking the risk of sharing honestly and openly with us about what it was like to live in the town where Christ was born more than 2,000 years ago. In Bethlehem, where so many children and young adults have suffered over the centuries, we were once again hearing the cries of God's people for justice.
Remember the Innocents, a humanitarian initiative of The Holy Land Trust in Palestine, was established in memory of the children slaughtered 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem by King Herod as he sought to kill the newborn "King of the Jews." Remember the Innocents seeks to raise worldwide awareness of how the suffering of children continues today on a scale far worse than in ancient times. It also strives to provide these young people with a safe place, amidst constant violence and fear, to meet together for dialogue, to share fears and dreams, and to work for peace through nonviolent actions. (See more at <http://www.theinnocents.org/>.)
"Why do you find democracy something to hate?" we asked the young woman, who was around 13 years of age. "Isn't democracy something that would help you achieve a peaceful life?"
She struggled to find the words in English that would articulate her fear, anger and frustration. It's very difficult to share deeply in a language other than your own. Her young friends stepped in to help, and a lively discussion erupted.
The only life these Palestinian young people have ever known is one of fear and uncertainty. All their lives, they have been exposed to humiliation under the occupation of Israeli troops. Democracy is not something they have ever directly experienced, so to understand it, they must look outside their own country for examples. America, as the symbol of the best democracy in the world, becomes the example they study-and what they see is not always positive or hopeful.
In 2001, following the devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., many people throughout Palestine gathered in candlelight vigils to offer prayers and compassion for those who had died so suddenly and horribly. They shed tears for the victims and their families, and prayed that violence all over the world would finally come to an end. But then they watched in disbelief as the United States labeled the United Nations "irrelevant" because the majority of UN members exercised their democratic privilege to voice opposition to a war they believed to be unjust and ill-planned. What kind of expression of democracy was this?
But the most painful experience for these young people had happened only days before our visit. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had gone to Washington to meet with President Bush. After a brief discussion, the two leaders came to an agreement on the future of the Palestinian people-but there was not one representative from Palestine present, nor was any voice from the Palestinian people considered. "The world's best democracy" apparently did not deem it important to seriously listen to the voices of those people who would be directly affected by these decisions.
Slowly it became clear to us why this young Palestinian woman and her friends found democracy something to hate. They see democracy not for what it is by definition, but rather for what is being practiced by a country that advertises itself as the promoter of true democracy. Democracy too often appears to them as arrogance, bullheadedness and a refusal to listen to the voices of those who are victims of oppressive systems and unilateral decisions.
The young people of the world need better than this, and indeed America can offer much better. We need to recognize the tremendous responsibility placed on our shoulders when we name ourselves "a beacon of democracy" and "a Christian nation." The young people of the world are watching and hoping. How many of them will end up saying, "I hate democracy"? That depends on how we, as citizens of a democracy, allow our government to play out its role on the international stage.