Interview with Germán Zarate: From Colombia to Palestine

When I arrived in Colombia on April 15, Germán Zarate, the much-beloved coordinator of the Colombia Accompaniment Program in Colombia, was still traveling back to his home in Barranquilla from Palestine and Israel. I first met Germán when I was serving as an accompanier in Urabá in May 2012, and, like many accomapaniers, I was immediately drawn to his kind and friendly spirit, challenged by his astute critiques of the Church and the US government, and inspired by his lifelong work for justice and human rights in Colombia and the Church. After Germán arrived back in Barranquilla on April 16, I had the chance to sit and talk with him one evening about his time in the Holy Land as part of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s Mosaic for Peace delegation that Germán was a part of with 28 members of the PC(USA).

German Zarate

What were your impressions of what you saw in Israel and Palestine? Complicated. But coming from my context in Colombia I understood it because we live in the context of an internal conflict as well. In Palestine and Israel there are two nations in the same land. They will have find a way for the two to live in peace, and we in Colombia, too, have to find a way to live in peace.

Hopeful. Because the people, especially the Palestinians who suffer so much in the midst of the situation there, are full of hope and they project that hope.

Nobody likes to be dominated by another, it’s dehumanizing. But at the same time the ones who are oppressing have to get tired of oppressing, and in that moment there is a possibility for peace. At some point the resistance to violence will slowly tire those who are doing the violence. I believe that the oppressors in Colombia and there are afraid of the moment when the oppressed are awakened, because they’re afraid that they will turn on the oppressors. But I’m a Christian and Jesus has taught me about peace—peace that is an active peace, that recognizes the dignity of all—so I believe that in that moment everyone must recognize that we’re all human and we’re all images of God. That is how we will have peace in Palestine and Israel and in Colombia.

Did you already know much about the reality in Israel and Palestine before you visited? No. I was really surprised because when I first arrived in the airport in Tel Aviv, I felt treated in a certain way. They questioned me like they thought I was a narco-trafficker. I had to have a lot of patience and be calm because I’m not a trafficker of drugs—only of peace and justice.

Once we left the airport I was moved by the kindness and the solidarity of the other delegates who took care of me the whole time. I am Colombian, and many people in Israel and Palestine thought I was Palestinian. When we went through the checkpoints we didn’t know how the Israeli [Defense Force soldiers guarding the checkpoint] would react. I got through fine, but our Palestinian guide would always give me advice of how to act when we were near the IDF, and I would go first so that the other members of the group were there to help if I needed it.

What was it like to walk through the checkpoints? It was easy. It was an important experience for a lot of the other delegates, but for me it felt almost normal, sadly. Here in Colombia we’re used to having to go through checkpoints any place at any time. We get stopped on the highway all the time and questioned.

Where or how did you witness nonviolent resistance in Palestine and Israel?  We learned about the strategy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS)—what it means and how it is being practiced and used. BDS and the Palestinian struggle for liberation is about resistance and solidarity. That’s how it has to be. I believe we all have something to learn from them. In my Colombian context, it’s easy for me to understand the dynamics of power and oppression in Palestine. We in Colombia have been living in the context of violence for so long—I have known this war my whole life. Now we’re in a peace process, but that kind of long-term violence has an effect on a society, on everyone in the society.  

 What inspired you? I was inspired by the necessity to live in peace. We have to learn to live in peace. Not the peace of this world, but the peace of Jesus. This is not easy. Wars are easy, but we have to figure out how to live in peace. We are trying in Colombia, and I was so inspired to see the Palestinians, too, struggling for peace with justice.

What was it like for you to visit the “Holy Land,” the place where the stories of the Bible take place? The Holy Sites have been converted from places to encounter God to places of commercialization. I’m very irreverent about that. I saw and experienced everything with curiosity, and it helped me think about what was most important about the stories of the Bible. It doesn’t matter to me where Jesus was born. He could have been born in Palestine or in Colombia or in China or in any other place. The important thing about the story of Jesus is that God wanted to be part of humanity and show us how to live together in peace. And there cannot be peace with oppression. Jesus taught us that.

The place that felt like a Holy Site was when I got to visit Daoud and his family at the Tent of Nations.* I have such a good friendship with Daoud that started when I met him at the PPF Convocation of Peacemakers last May. We understand each other even though he doesn’t speak much English. He’s a campesino. He was so excited to see me when I got there. In Colombia we hug a lot and we kiss on the cheek to greet each other. In Palestine that’s not the custom as much, but when I saw Daoud again he gave me a big hug. That place felt like a Holy Site to me much more than the other places we visited. They are trying to create and model the kind of peace that Jesus talks about.

The Tent of Nations is a Palestinian farm just outside of Bethlehem. The land has been in the Nasser family for over 100 years, but for the last 10 they have been in court proceedings with the Israeli government who is seeking to take the land. The Nasser’s farm is on a hill that is almost completely surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements of large homes with electricity and running water, while the Nassers are not allowed to have permanent buildings, running water, or electricity on their land and their olive trees are often bulldozed by illegal orders from the Israeli government. While it might be easy and understandable for the Nassers to avoid their settler neighbors and use violence to resist the Israeli occupation and attempts at illegal seizure of their land, the Nassers are committed to practicing Christian nonviolence as they work for justice in Palestine. They build relationships with their neighbors and they fight in the courts for their land. They are an inspiring witness and Germán got to know Amal and Daoud Nasser at Stony Point when Amal was the preacher for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship Convocation of Peacemakers in May 2015.