Hope for change in Israel
The country has important holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims — it needs new initiatives for peace
By Susanne Janssen
What comes to your mind thinking of Israel? Jerusalem, the City of David, the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Golan Heights, the West Bank, the wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem… Jewish settlements in the midst of Palestinian territories, a Palestinian government with ties to terrorists.
A complicated situation. Why does it have to be like this? I left with these and other questions on a trip to Israel, organized by Project Interchange, an initiative of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). I returned with even more questions.
Yes, it is complicated and complex. Yet I found people who want to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians and who dedicate their lives to dialogue.
A look at Jewish roots
Yossi Shain, Head of the School of political science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University, introduced the group — 13 U.S. journalists covering faith stories for religious and secular media — to the history of Israel. No, it didn’t start in 1948 — you have to go back to the Old Testament and the promise that God gave to Abraham. An important step was the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century B.C.: “Usually, the tribes who lost sovereignty yielded to the god of the people who won. Not so the Jews,” he said.
There’s the prophecy that when the Jewish people will dwell in their land and prosper, the Messiah will come. In 1948, there were 600,000 Jews in Israeli territory. Now the country has 10 million inhabitants, more than 74% are Jewish, 65% adhere to traditions like a Bar Mitzvah, the traditional Jewish coming-of-age ritual for boys.
One cannot understand a bit of Israel without looking back at the Shoah. There were 10 million Jews in Poland before the Nazis invaded the country; 3 million lost their lives. In total, close to 6 million people were killed in the extermination camps, most of them Jewish.
A movie in the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem shows footage of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe — a culture that is lost forever. At the end of the museum, visitors step outside and see green hills and villages, a land built on tears and faith that God didn’t abandon his chosen people. Not even in the gas chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Jews in Israel are not a homogenous group. Around 20% are orthodox or ultra-orthodox. Many of the latter do not work (going back to an ancient teaching of a rabbi in Lithuania that not only one hour a day, but the whole day can be dedicated to studying the Torah) and are supported by the State. This is a constant challenge for the state of Israel, since those families are traditionally large, so the administration tries to encourage them to change and pursue further education.
Educating to change
One of these initiatives is Ono College. Located in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv, its mission is to bring higher education to Palestinians, Bedouins, Druze and ultra-orthodox Jews. The idea is to serve those who are excluded from society.
Started 28 years ago with 188 students, today it has 15,000 students on five campuses, and it tries to accommodate the particular needs of the different groups. Druze and Bedouin women come with chaperons who watch over them, and there are two separate campuses specifically for the Haredi (ultra-orthodox Jews) to meet their needs of separate classrooms for men and women. The director of Ono College hopes that those who graduate will change their communities and give them more access to modern professions.
Dr. Shalom Sharon came to Israel as a teenager, after then Prime Minister Menachem Begin invited Ethiopian Jews to settle in Israel in 1977. Sharon came into a different world, and realized that not everybody welcomed him: is there such a thing as a Jew with black skin? Are they “real” Jews? Racism and subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination exists in all societies. Now he is the chair of the first Center for Ethiopian Judaism.
“The Ethiopian tradition has not been accepted by the religious establishment in Israel, but it is my responsibility to change the consciousness,” he shares. Instead of dwelling on the discrimination, Ono College tries to change the face of Israeli society — this is his way of promoting change amid tensions, since black Israeli citizens are more likely to be detained than white ones.
The Palestinian side
Israel is a country of many facets. A trip took us through East Jerusalem, in some parts a no-man’s land where the trash piles up on the streets, where the potholes are so deep that a car could get stuck in them. The houses remain shabby and neglected.
There are refugee camps where families that have been living there for five generations are still waiting to get back the land they had to leave behind when the state of Israel was established in 1948. Some of them refuse to move on with their lives because they don’t want to accept the current situation, some others don’t have any perspective. In the meantime, they get a bit of welfare, but have no promising jobs.
No homeland — or just no future?
Ramallah instead is a modern, pretty city, clean and neat. Tareq Maayah chose to build his company here in a three-story building. He creates software and works for big companies like Cisco, but has also Israeli clients. Young Palestinian engineers like him are working on solutions for future communication. Yet he has difficulties getting his equipment because of Israeli clearance impediments at borders.
“Palestine has great universities and excellent graduates, but no jobs,” Maayah says — without blaming one side or the other. However, Israel has a shortage of engineers and is looking for them in India or elsewhere while a lot of Palestinians are well-prepared. In his company, men and women are working side by side. They are young people with the same aspirations as everyone else, trying to find their place in society and eager to give of themselves and their talents. Maayah has hope in the future. “These young people, they speak the same language in Ramallah as in Jerusalem. They all speak English.”
Though they may want the same thing, they don’t have the same rights. Khalil Shikaki is an internationally renowned Palestinian political scientist. He describes the dire daily life in the Gaza Strip, where most people live off welfare, and in the West Bank, where the Israeli government creates obstacles for businesses and Palestinian authorities are corrupt and incapable. A lot of people don’t like any of the alternatives the future might offer — neither a two-state solution nor remaining as second-class citizens in Israel.
“Even the new plan by the Trump administration will be rejected,” Shikaki said. All leaders promise that they won’t agree to any plan that doesn’t give them 100%. But political negotiations are always marked by compromises.
President Mahmoud Abbas was elected in 2005 after the death of Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and since then he has remained in office without any legitimate democratic process. Abbas was never as popular as Arafat, and most Palestinians — Shikaki notes — think that his party Fatah is corrupt.
The political scientist paints a picture of the Palestinians: according to him, around 30% identify themselves first as Muslims and are in favor of an Islamist state. Around 55% are mainstream secular nationalists, in favor of an independent Palestinian state. And 15% are left-wing nationalists who think religion is destructive for society.
“For any peace plan to be successful, there’s the expectation that it would need to end the Israeli occupation, establish a sovereign Palestinian state along the borders of 1967, evacuate the settlements or exchange them with equivalent territories from Israel’s proper, establish East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, ensure a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem and put Muslim Holy places under Palestinian sovereignty,” said Shikaki — and that might be an illusion, since both sides are not willing to negotiate. A solution for the 4 million people living in the Palestinian territories (around 2% of which are Christians) is still far away.
Shared holy places
Back in Jerusalem, a visit to the Western Wall, once the wall to the Temple of David. Men and women flood these areas to pray, and the holy places of the three religions are so close to each other. There’s the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock, now a mosque. The Mount of Olives stands in background, as well as synagogues and Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. For every believer of the three book religions, Jerusalem is a holy place. Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs, describes the approach of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews as follows: “If Christianity is the trunk of a tree, Islam is one of its fruits. But the Jewish religion is the roots.” Considering the past, this statement means already a huge change. Rosen encourages dialogue among followers of the same religion as well as among various faiths in order to get to know those who are different, although “people choose to live in their own communities.” Among the Jewish communities, there are Hasidic, Haredi, modern orthodox and secular neighborhoods in Israel.
How can Jews meet Christians or Muslims, and vice versa? How can people learn to live in peace with one another?
On our last day, we were supposed to visit a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip. However, the evening before, two rockets were fired toward Tel Aviv, answered by Israel with a counterstrike. All of a sudden, those TV pictures became “real.” It was too dangerous to travel close to Gaza, so our guide worked hard on a different program.
We visited a convent of Benedictine Monks in Abu Ghosh, acquired at the end of the 19th century from the French government. This building had been abandoned for centuries and used for cattle by the Ottomans. In 1901, the monks came and restored the monastery.
Brother Olivier, a French-born monk, came here in 1977, and since then he has been building bridges among the different groups. “I learned Hebrew from my Muslim friends who came for a cup of coffee in the morning,” he says.
Close to the monastery, there is a mosque, with prominent loudspeakers on the minaret to call the Muslims to prayer. Inside the old monastery, enclosed by 12-foot-thick walls, the monks sing century-old psalms and chants. But Brother Olivier wants more than just a peaceful coexistence; he brings people together.
A friend of his worked to prepare Muslim and Jewish young people who had been drafted for military service. Each year he brings them to the monastery in Abu Ghosh so that they can learn about Christianity. They sing together, pray alongside — an oasis of peace in the midst of a divided country that longs for it.
There are others like Brother Olivier. Oded Revivi, the Jewish mayor of the Efrat settlement, doesn’t want fences but rather invites people to celebrate the different holidays together. Bedouin Mayor Naeem Shibli tries to prepare his people for living and working together in modern jobs. They all want to build bridges, even as the ghosts of the past are still there.
Returning after my 12-day stay in Israel, many people told me that they would like to go too, to experience it, to see the places where Jesus lived. Yet many expressed their dislike of Israeli politics, calling it nationalist and discriminating against the Palestinians.
Is that true? As so often the case, both sides have their points, and politicians manipulate those points to divide people who just want peace and a better future for their families and communities.
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