Delaware Valley Interfaith Delegation in Old City Jerusalem
By George Stern
This is the first report from twenty religious leaders "" clergy and laypeople, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Unitarians from the Delaware Valley "" who have embarked on a Compassionate Listening trip to Israel and the West Bank. Our aim is simple yet profound: to use skills as empathetic listeners to understand what life is like for the residents of this region sixty years after the establishment of the State of Israel and the failure to establish a Palestinian state and forty-one years after the war that rearranged the map, giving hope of a permanent peace while also setting the stage for emotional and political developments that to this day give plenty of reason for despair.
Our flight from Newark Airport to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv began on time and ended an hour early. We hoped that such a beginning would signal an auspicious eight days here.
From the start, though, there were hints that everything might not go smoothly. Several of our Muslim members encountered "special treatment" both in the U.S. and in Israel "" polite, to be sure, but symptomatic of the divisions, controversies, fears, and sometimes hatreds that are so much a part of the world scene "" a scene we hope to play a role in inching towards change and resolution.
Our first afternoon was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem "" at the Western Wall, sacred to Jews; on the Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims; and in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sacred to Christians. In each place we were confronted with the passionate holiness that makes this a unique city, and with stories of discord that would challenge any compassionate listener. At the Wall ultra-Orthodox authorities in charge have created what is essentially an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, forcing religious liberal Jews to worship around the corner from this sacred spot. On the Temple Mount Muslim authorities decided several years ago that non-Muslims could no longer enter the Al Aqsa mosque or the golden-sheathed Dome of the Rock, even when no prayers are underway. And the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is replete with stories of intra-Christian political machinations that would be humorous were they not such sad manifestations of religious intolerance. Is it any wonder that there are struggles between religious groups when, in this holy land, struggles within such groups have set divisive patterns that are millennia-old? Is it possible for real passion for one's faith to leave room for other faiths to thrive and grow? What would we have to do to make that happen?
In the evening we were reminded that, out of despair can indeed leap hope. Rami Elhannan, an Israeli, and Mazen Farraj, a Palestinian, shared with us their terrible stories of loss "" a daughter killed at the age of 14 in a suicide bombing, a father killed by Israeli police "" that led them to join the Bereaved Parents Circle. They travel across Israel and throughout the world explaining how, out of their grief, they determined to work day in and day out to bring hope of peace to Israelis and Palestinians. We were most moved to learn that they have traveled together to hundreds of schools, in some of which they were ridiculed and called traitors, but where they know they have managed, slowly but surely, to provide a better model for the younger generation than tit-for-tat revenge. Rami drew from his family's experience as Holocaust survivors to determine not to sit idly by while innocent people get killed because not enough people speak up for sane and humane policies. Mazen, whose family has lived in a refugee camp since 1948, says he is "not religious," yet clearly lives a life inspired by God though unencumbered by a system of rules and regulations that he sees as divisive and destructive.
In the week ahead we will meet with simple citizens, organizational leaders, and political figures to continue our quest to understand what life is like for Israelis and Palestinians and discover what ways some have found not just to cope but to maintain hope that reconciliation and peace remain attainable goals.