Moyer and his friends in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Image via Bob Moyer.
During his senior year of college, Robert Moyer realized that he was destined for something other than a career in chemistry — fate and a calling for service led him to Palestine.
It was 1968 when a young blue-eyed man with blond hair set foot in the small Palestinian town of Beit Jala. Amongst the dark-skinned men with their bushy brows, he looked different. However, he was there on a mission.
After graduating from Goshen College with a degree in Chemistry, twenty-one-year-old Bob Moyer got on a plane to a boys’ boarding school in Beit Jala, where he would spend two years that would alter his entire world.
Through working with Mennonite Central Committee, a nonprofit relief and service organization, Moyer joined the boarding school as a sports coach, teacher and housefather to almost one hundred boys who came from low-income families or had lost their parents in the 1967 war when Israel occupied the remainder of Palestine, the Golan Heights in Syria and Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.
“The kids were like magnets, or maybe I was the magnet,” said Moyer smiling as he recalled the first time he met the boys that would later become a part of his new family. “They all just came to me and wanted to know my name, whether I liked soccer or basketball. They hung around me like bees on honey.”
As time passed, Moyer grew attached to the boys, creating a bond with them that has lasted to this day. Today, Moyer is still in contact with some of his students as he tries to keep up with where life has led them. “One of them who hung on me all the time, his name was Saad,” Moyer said. “He was really skinny but tall for a ninth grader, but after I left, he grew up to be 6’8 and played basketball in Jordan.”
At the time Moyer was in Palestine in 1968, Palestinians were still recovering from the war in 67’. While Moyer did not have much knowledge of the struggle in the country, he got to witness it directly as he listened to the stories of people around him. “I became personally involved with them as to what had transpired,” said Moyer. “I fully empathized with their feelings and their reactions to what their country was becoming.”
Moyer talked with the teachers about the war and how it changed their country. He got to know his students and how the occupation affected their lives. Slowly, Moyer was learning about the land and its people, becoming fully invested in the history, culture and continuous struggle of Palestinians.
Moyer recalled his experience with Israeli checkpoints. “I would see how the local Palestinians were treated at these checkpoints, running them through lines that were like cattle stalls treating them like animals,” said Moyer.
According to Amnesty International, Israel continues to establish permanent military checkpoints, roadblocks and barriers across the West Bank to restrict and obstruct the movement of Palestinians.
As Palestinians attempt to escape the low employment rate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and find work in Jerusalem and other Israeli-controlled areas, they flood the checkpoints from the early morning, as they clamp together for hours inside the overcrowded steel bars, like inmates in a prison corridor.
Al Jazeera, a Middle Eastern news source, says that many Palestinians describe that the conditions at the checkpoints are insufferable as they experience exhaustion, broken ribs, fainting and suffocation due to being jammed in such small spaces for a long time.
Almost five decades since Moyer was in Palestine, the situation is only deteriorating. “There wasn’t even a wall yet back then,” Moyer said. The wall, which Israel started constructing in 2002, cuts through Palestinian land, separating towns and villages into enclaves to further control and hurdle the movement of Palestinians, reporting by Al Jazeera explains. Meanwhile, Israelis could travel and move freely on roads connecting Israeli settlements to one another, reports Amnesty International.
Al Jazeerza also reports that Israeli settlements are exclusively built for Jewish Israelis on land confiscated from Palestinians. In those settlements, settlers enjoy a lavish lifestyle, with infinite access to medical centers, schools, universities, pools and even shopping malls.
Israel has built more than 200 settlements throughout the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, housing more than 750,000 settlers, according to Al Jazeera. Additionally, AP news reports that with Israel’s new far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, settlements are only expected to expand as Israel plans to build 7,000 more. This would further result in more displacement and dispossession of Palestinians from their land to make room for Israeli settlers.
The United Nations has deemed Israel’s separation wall and settlements illegal under international law.
Moyer recalled when Israeli soldiers would shift the valves of the well near their school, directing the water toward the settlements and cutting it from the school. “I was afraid of running out of water at the school,” said Moyer. “So after they had left in the evening, I would go back out and turn the valves the other way.”
Israel controls Palestinians’ access to water as each Palestinian can barely consume 20 liters a day while Israeli settlers enjoy access to about 300 liters a day, according to Amnesty International.
Despite the cruelty that Moyer witnessed the Palestinians go through, he said it did not deter from the people’s loving, compassionate, generous and welcoming nature. “One of my memories is that, although I was an American, they did not hold anything against me for what my country was doing in support of Israel,” said Moyer.
Wherever Moyer went, Palestinians met him with gratitude and hospitality, making him feel as part of the family. Moyer laughed as he recalled the times his Palestinian friends would insist on feeding him, stuffing him with food despite him saying he was full.
“I think they found it a little hard to believe that someone would give up their own dreams to come to serve in a foreign land,” said Moyer. “But this was my dream — to go to a foreign country and try to help where I could — teaching, living among the people, being a father to the boys, understanding a new culture, trying to understand the injustice in the land.”
When Moyer was back in the United States, he was shocked by the false narrative surrounding Palestine after witnessing reality with his own eyes. “There are so many myths out there that Americans are continually fed, and they start to believe them without fact-checking or seeing for themselves,” said Moyer. “They only know what they see or hear on TV or in newspapers and this points the finger at our media — why is it so lopsided?”
Moyer also explained that politicians and leaders play a huge role in the misinformation regarding Palestine as they continue to fund Israel’s occupation, annually providing Israel with billions of dollars in aid.
At his home in Pennsylvania, Moyer held on to his memories in Palestine and the person he became after his service. “I felt that I wanted to live a life that would reflect how I saw others live there,” said Moyer. “I developed a big heart, one that wanted to help wherever I could, and that stayed with me as I transitioned back into life here in the States.”
Intertwining his love for service and Palestine, Moyer wanted to devote his time to advocate for Palestinian rights. Throughout the years, he has continued to attend conferences and seminars on Palestine where he meets Palestinians and reminisces about his time in Palestine.
Today, Moyer is a part of an advocacy group in Philadelphia called Christian-Jewish Allies which was formed in 2008 to defend Palestinian rights. The group regularly holds educational events to discuss and learn more about Palestine. They also work on spreading awareness and advocating for Palestinian rights through speaking to local or federal representatives, writing articles for newspapers and advocating for or against bills related to Palestine.
Despite constant pressure and suppression, Moyer believes the fight must go on so that the world can one day hear the voice of Palestinians and finally provide them with the justice they have been deprived of for decades. It is a battle of “nickels and dimes against billions of dollars,” Moyer says, but he knows the cause is worth it.