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(…if I had included this entry in the previous post as originally intended, the setup would have included a Russian nun.)
First, a disclaimer: I am an amateur in observing the processes for peace and justice in the Middle East. As an American I have an affinity for and support of Israel, as a Christian a sense of solidarity with many Palestinians, as a Catholic adamantly against anti-Semitism or any form of religious discrimination, and as an educator and practitioner of dialogue a commitment to non-violence and the truth. My limitations are such – neither speaking Hebrew nor Arabic, not being a native or a professional diplomat or peacemaker – that I have always known there were others who would understand the situation better. But I hope to learn more in these months. It sometimes, probably naively, seems like it would actually take little effort – it simply must be willed. The majority of people I meet could live with one another without problem, given the chance. I will offer further reflections on the current situation and overall concerns at a later time.
In the last week, I have tagged along with the sabbatical students of Tantur’s continuing education program – mostly priests, with a couple of religious – for a “dual-narrative” tour and conversations. I understand this set up was something of an experiment for Tantur, and I personally think it worked very well.
Two experienced guides, one Israeli, one Palestinian, traded off presentations designed to introduce participants into the overriding narratives in the region regarding the current situation. And, unsurprisingly, to suggest that it is black and white, and only two-sided, is erroneous. Yet, many of us were only familiar with one or the other. (I have had an excellent introduction to Judaism and Israel, through the Shalom Hartmann Institute and the Russell Berrie Fellowship, but, while I have a good grasp of Islam generally, the specific Palestinian story was less firm in my mind; others had the opposite experience).
The most impressive feature was probably the positive dynamic between our two guides, and their openness to learn from one another, even as we learned from them. AS much as was possible, we had them both together, though occasionally separately.
We started with a presentation on the history of Zionism and its various movements. Then a presentation on Palestinian nationalism, and the shift from Arab to pan-Islam identity. We drove from Jerusalem to Jaffa-Tel Aviv along Route One, getting an interwoven dialogue of the history of the Israeli War of Independence; the displacement of Palestinians (mostly Muslim) from Israel and of Jews from the Arab countries (in roughly equal numbers); the stories of villages destroyed and of those survived. We visited the old city of Jaffa, the first Jewish neighborhood outside the old city, Neve Tzedek, and ended at Rabin Square, visiting the site of the former Prime Minister’s 1995 assassination.
Oh, and we saw a couple gazelle along the road, too.
Our second day included a presentation by a couple of young workers involved in the Christian Peacemaker Teams based in Hebron, detailing their role as observers of the relationship between the Palestinian locals, Israeli settlers, the IDF and Border Patrol. Lunch at a famous restaurant above Shepherd’s Field, The Tent, was delicious and enlightening,conversation lead as it was by the regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a “network of organizations that conduct civil society work in conflict transformation, development, coexistence and cooperative activities…among Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews.” In the afternoon we visited with a Christian Palestinian and an Israeli Jew, a former Seattleite turned settler, involved in an organization called Roots, which “draws Israelis and Palestinians who, despite living next to each other, are separated by walls of fear- not just fear of each other, but even of the price of peace.” We rounded out the day at the disputed Israeli development at Efrat, located in Judea/West Bank. A current population of about 10,000 is split into roughly 20% secular, 20% Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”), and 60% Orthodox/Observant Jews, it was founded in 1983.
At the end of the day as we gathered for evening prayer, we found Tantur overrun by children. Turns out the seasonal gathering of Kids4Peace had been bumped out of their scheduled location and had had some trouble finding a place – some locations made some members uncomfortable, and unbelievably, some places did not want them. Who could object to kids wanting peace, getting to know each other? It was a beautiful benediction wrapping up a couple of intensive days, and a compelling reminder of what is at stake here in the land called holy.
While still processing much of the information and experience, i am a small step closer to understanding each of the narratives that often seem impossible to come from the same situation. And there are, as in every situation, exceptions and variations. It is also amazing how people living in such a small area,in such close proximity to one another can have so little contact with each other. This is one of the dangers of the current situation. As a couple people have noted, at least the older residents remember living side by side with someone who was “other”. Now, for the millennials, this sort of thing has never been part of their experience. How much easier is it, then, to establish increasingly divergent narratives?
Our days are packed, so I am going to post a few brief sketches of our itinerary and activity, and fill out more details when I am able. But I wanted to share what I’ve been up to this week!
Woke up before dawn to get ready and get to Leonardo da Vinici Airport by 8:15, a little more than two hours before our flight is scheduled to leave.
Flying to Israel from Rome took a little over three hours. The Tel Aviv airport is one of the nicest I have seen in the world – the contrast with Fiumicino is on many levels striking. We were met by security officials who streamlined our passport review, and then met our guide, Yitzik, and bus driver, Ezra.
Diving from Tel Aviv on the caost, to Jerusalem in the mountains only takes about 40 minutes, and we get to the hotel a little before sunset. With a little time to check in, unpack and freshen up, we get a brief intro to the Jewish teachings and practices of Sabbath before heading to the home of Rabbi Donniel Hartman for a traditional Shabbat meal.
Oh, The singing! The Shabbat songs are beautiful! It makes me wish I had not basically failed Hebrew!
What does it mean to be a Jew? What is Jewish Identity? Is it family? Is it faith? A people? A nation? These are the questions affecting life in Israel and Jews in general, and the topic of our dinner conversation. There is no consensus. Even when establishing the state of Israel, a definition could not be found, so the one used for the Right of Return is based on the working definition developed by, of all people, Adolf Hitler. If he would have murdered you, you can claim citizenship in Israel and “come home”. Beyond that, it is an open question.
Our first day in Israel was especially blessed. That is to say, it rained. A fine, soft rain like we get in Seattle, but a genuine blessing in a dessert!