Today was a very different day that’s yesterday in that we spent less time touring various sites and more time listening to people of different faiths as we explored the complexity of the people who live in Israel and the issues that face them. This is actually one of the main purposes of the trip. I am going to give a couple of highlights from what each speaker said. It is still quite a long post, but as I re-read it, I found there was nothing I would leave out.
We began with Rabbi David Rosen, Director of Interfaith relationships. He said that one of the challenges for inter-faith work in Jerusalem was how much the different groups in Israel live within their own circles. There also needs to be a change from the zero sum game attitude which so many have which is that if you care about Israel, you don’t care about the Palestinians and if you care about the Palestinians then you don’t care about Israel. Everyone sees themselves as the minority being threatened by the other making it hard for each group to take a good look at themselves in the mirror. The only way he can see for things to change is to focus on initiatives that bring Israelis and Palestinians together and we had a chance to visit one of those initiatives later in the day. The very interesting thing he said is that the people in Israel blame anything the US government does on the Christians since they live in a religious state. We saw evidence of this later in the day when one of our speakers on hearing we were from New Jersey said, “You all are causing us a lot of trouble.”
Our next stop was to visit the Very Rev.d Hosam E. Baum, Dean of St. George the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. The five Episcopalians in our group were very excited to be there! Dean Baum’s background itself was fascinating. He was born in Nazareth and is a 4th generation Anglican. He calls himself Christian, Arab (Arab Christians have been around a long time), Palestinian (his parents were born in Palestine during the British Mandate) and Israeli (born in Israel. He believes it is important to have a Christian presence in Jerusalem so that people who come to visit can experience the ‘living stones’ not just the holy sites (aka dead stones). The sites are important, but it is important to connect with the present worshipping community of the time. One of the challenges he faces is that the Christian population in Jerusalem is dwindling. In 1922, there were 40,000 Christians. Now there are only 8,000. What keeps the Cathedral funded is the huge number of pilgrims who come - 3 million last year.
Our next stop was along the border wall which the Israelis have built for safety from the Palestinians. This is a wall which has created much controversy. It has cut towns in half, cut people off from access to their land and created many problems for Palestinians trying to get to work or even hospital. As we stood on the Israeli side, we could see Bethlehem which is outside the wall and Israelis are discouraged from going there with big red signs. It has made things safer on the Israeli side, but as our guide said there are many human rights issues that need to be addressed.
Then we drove outside the wall to the West Bank to the Etzion Settlement Block to meet the Israelis and Palestinians of Shorashim - Judhur (Roots) a grassroots project which brings Palestinians and Jewish settlers in a realistic and unique coexistence dialogue/living project. This includes working with youth groups, providing seminars for Jewish setters and Palestinians to hear different point of views and to talk. It is slow challenging work since both sides included groups who are not interested or strongly oppose this work. Read more at friendsofroots.net.
One of the big disappointments of the day was that we were not able to visit the Temple Mount which is the Muslim Complex on the site of the Second Temple. Instead we met with the person who would have been our guide at a Muslim public library. Entrance to the Muslim Complex is very restricted for non-Muslims and while we had temporary approval, in the end it was denied. Instead we learned about the Waqf, the Muslim Holy Trust and about why it is under the control of Jordan. It was also wonderful to see a copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” in Arabic.
I’ve learnt a lot today much of which I was sorry I didn’t know before. The whole situation is quite complex and perhaps it takes actually standing in these places and listening to the people to start to understand.