“The challenge in life is not simply being kind to others. The challenge is being kind to those who don’t deserve it. To be kind to those we despise. To choose empathy over scorn, peace over cruelty. Violence is easy. Any idiot can kill. Compassion requires effort, the restraint of brutal instincts.”

I loved seeing Bethlehem from above, looking down from the mountains. We were helping a farmer pull a dry, prickly brush called natsh from his land, where he hoped to plant olive trees. The Israeli-Palestinian issue, of course, is as thorny and tough as that ancient brush: both sides can match tragedy for tragedy, rage for rage. But the Palestinians we met endure enormous day-to-day headaches as they contend with checkpoints, the settlements, and the massive gray security barrier, which is roughly twice the height of the Berlin Wall. As I write in The Voluntourist of my reasons for visiting the West Bank: “The Palestinians have no monopoly on suffering; they’ve both endured suffering and inflicted it. We all suffer. Rich, poor, Muslim, Jew. But understanding suffering without visiting Palestine is like understanding the Bible without reading Genesis. Nowhere on earth do the elements that so make us human—violence, hope, compassion, pain—seem on such stark and jarring display.”

Photo Gallery

After two days in Jerusalem, I crossed through the Gilo checkpoint to Bethlehem. The mural that you’ll see here is from the Beit Jibrin refugee camp’s Handala Center, the wall painting shows a martyr killed during the Second Intifada, and the columns are in the Church of the Nativity. The desert shot with the cross was taken on a journey from Bethlehem to Jericho; the last three photos were shot by my friend Steven Szewczyk.