Running around the short 4 kilometre route on the outside of the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem can be a challenge with its ups an downs. The running surface, a combination of grass, tarmac and hard Jerusalem stone, is almost as changeable as the scenes you see making your way along the route: Franciscans coming from matins at New Gate; Haredi schoolchildren pouring out of the Jewish Quarter towards their schools in the west of the city; and women wearing hijabs and young men walking east from the Muslim Quarter walking toward the commercial district in Sheikh Jarrah. You see people are literally walking in different directions from their separate and distinct communities. Perhaps this is a metaphor for community relations in Jerusalem, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority.
For a week, the Council of Christians and Jews gave a group of 15 Jewish and Christian leaders from the UK a window into these communities: and so, for a brief moment in time, we were able to experience their lives, to listen to them and learn from their multiple narratives and to see a land that is so close to all our hearts through their eyes and the eyes of our fellow journeymen and women..
With the past all around us, in a land where every stone has a multiple narrative, it was important to hear from different Arabs and Jews across the religious and political spectrum. Only by having the opportunity to hear different peoples’ perspectives could we hope to best envision what a shared future might look like and how best to forge better community relations in the Middle East and Christian-Jewish relations back in Britain.
My own reason for being there was to explore whether there was a glimmer of hope for the future: I suspect others had come for similar reasons.
During our visit we listened to politicians, representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian Governments, members of the opposition in the Knesset and a representative of the Israel Defence Force. We engaged with divergent perspectives from very different communities: settlers, Fatah activists, humanitarian workers, educators, journalists, Christian and Muslim Palestinians, Jewish and Arab Israelis, rabbis and priests: and importantly those trying to work on the grassroots in the Jerusalem area, Bethlehem, and Ramallah.
Whilst many politicians and journalists had seemingly given up (we were told on many occasions ‘things have never been worse’) others spoke in the language of hope and dialogue, such as Rabbi David Rosen and the Anglican Dean of St George’s Cathedral, Hosan Naoum. It was a privilege to hear from those engaged in dialogue and working to bring about peaceful coexistence, planting seeds of hope in the world. We learnt about the work of the Abraham Fund, the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. In visiting a project called ‘Roots’ we saw how settlers and Arabs in the West Bank were trying to forge encounters in the most difficult of circumstances. Shaul, a rabbi involved in Roots paraphrased the Talmud that ‘anger is idolatry’: a necessary reminder on a journey where we had met those that had expressed fear, trepidation, and anger.
We saw the conflict and tensions at first hand but eventually I found the shards of light, both in terms of innovation and optimism. It was on the last day that we visited a project that embodies this. Hand in Hand is an integrated school where Arabs and Jews (Christians, Muslims and Jews) are taught together. Two primary school girls showed me their exercise book: one of them Arab, one of them Jewish. They started to teach me Arabic: showing me how to draw the letter ‘ayn. They chatted to me about their school, their work and each other. In a week when we heard a degree of pessimism here was a sign of hope: where the young learn and dream their dreams together, in an environment that actively fosters respect and mutual understanding.
As we stood and enjoyed tea and strawberries on the British Ambassador’s lawn that afternoon it stuck me that the Arabic letter ‘ayn the girls were learning is the same as Hebrew ayin, a letter of huge symbolic importance in the Jewish tradition. It represents the number 70: a Biblical lifespan. On reflection, it might take that lifetime to bring about the necessary change for there be to peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.
CCJ had given us an invaluable and important opportunity to engage with the issue and to journey with people wanting to build bridges not walls. So the next time, I am running around the walled city of peace or passing by some of our new friends here in the UK I might just stop to have a drink with them, continue our dialogue, and see how we can work together to build a shared future because as it says in Pirkei Avot : “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.
Jewish Chaplain, University of Surrey