For two weeks (interspersed with two nights in the Galilee) I have been in the Holy City with a group called Living Stones. Our main intention was to show solidarity with the Christian churches during Unity Week 2012. This involved sharing in prayer in Anglican, Lutheran, Latin, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Syrian and Coptic Orthodox, and Greek Melkite communities each night, meeting members of the communities and trying to understand their concerns. Much was fruitful and hospitality was wonderful. But there was a feeling of sadness that church leaders — with one exception — did not take the opportunity of the coming together to address specific peace issues.
But my underlying motive — apart from visiting some projects — was to try to test the waters, to discover what movements existed to offer hope of peace and conflict resolution. I’m still looking for bridges — not walls. At first glance the signs were not good. In the background were the failing peace talks and the visit of Ban Ki-moon to try to prevent their complete breakdown. Also, this week there has been another disturbing instance — maybe on a smaller scale — but indicative of a widespread mood. There was an educational scheme floated to bring Israeli school children to the West Bank town of Hebron to understand what was going on. What was daring about the scheme was that the children would learn both sides of the story, since they would hear from the group Breaking the Silence, which takes anonymous testimony from Israeli soldiers about what they witnessed during their army service. Sadly, this interaction was forbidden by the Security Police: the visit took place but not the exposure to Breaking the Silence.
There have been two consequences to date: First, the goal of these increasingly common visits will be to help young children understand Hebron’s vital importance for Israeli heritage, with the tombs of the patriarchs being situated there. That this is Arab land, in the West Bank, is totally ignored by this agenda; indeed, in connection with this incident there are various published remarks about removing Arabs from sites vital to Israeli heritage. Yet, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has published a highly satirical article highlighting the loss to Israeli children education that the other side of the story — the side about the devastating impact on Palestinians of settlements like Hebron — cannot be told.
During the same week, a very poor, tiny West Bank village in the Jordan Valley called Khirbet-al-Tawil went on a hunger strike because of settler encroachment on their land. Villagers hoped that this desperate action would make the world take notice. For twenty-four hours women, men, and children were in the mosque together with no food or drink. There was not much TV coverage but the villagers are hopeful.
Meanwhile, our group (Living Stones) has been trying to listen to any movement drawing Israelis and Palestinians together and overcoming the opinion that Arabs are inferior, terrorists, or expendable in Ha’aretz Israel. One note of hope is a revival of interest in Rabbi Abraham Heschel and his teaching in some quarters: a recent Ha’aretz article reports that in the Judean desert in the Ein Prat Seminary, Dror Bondi is introducing his students to the life and work of Heschel. It is notable that the photograph accompanying this article shows Heschel in a Civil Rights March against racism in the United States in 1965. Heschel was a close friend of the King family — and in April of 1968 he invited them to participate in the Passover Seder supper. A few days before this, King was assassinated. For Bondi, the significance of Heschel is that his concept of God opens him and his students to absolute caring and empathy. He already admits that this has already made a difference to his family life. Growing up, he recognized that there was a racist attitude toward Palestinians — yet he and his family refused to join in groups throwing stones against Palestinians.
“Absolute caring and empathy” — these are values that all biblical faiths can share and are at the heart of all faiths. My prayer this week has been that Israelis can find a way to balance their passionate love of the land of Israel with the reality of the suffering of Palestinians. I pray they will struggle not merely to survive but to survive with dignity and justice.