History shows that a visit to the most celebrated holy city on Earth can significantly impact a person in several ways. The sheer power of the multi-religious atmosphere in Jerusalem can weigh on one’s sensibilities like a juggernaut on the mind. Religious delusions, apocalyptic visions and magical thinking can temporarily cloud a person’s perception of reality. This phenomenon apparently happens so often that a mental condition known as the “Jerusalem Syndrome” has been named to describe it. Though knowing this, I wasn’t afraid. Being that I actually made a conscious choice to become a politician a few years back and have ran two US Congressional campaigns since then, I’m already way past the Jerusalem Syndrome, so I wasn’t fearful of catching it in preparing for a journey to Al Quds, “The Holy”…
This will be my final report on my 2009 trip to the Holy Land before returning to the States. I’ve met a lot of amazing folks all pressed into trying to make the world a better place. I feel grateful to have been able to witness firsthand the political system here in Israel in helping my friend’s party, Brit Olam. After a day of stormy tempest, both weather-wise and political, as of tonight, the Israeli elections showed a clear shift to the nationalist-right, despite Tzipi Livni’s Kadima victory. The politics of fear has won the day, but after seeing and experiencing harrowing situations on both sides of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict with people stuck in desperate conditions unable to break free, it’s not hard to understand why. Nobody said peace was going to be easy.
Instead of blogging a paragraph here or there, I’ve consolidated many observations into this report—it’s an intermingling of visits to holy sites, the religious concepts and currents behind them, background stories and the realities of a continuing human catastrophe occurring in Israel and Palestine today. Thanks to Eyal Raviv and Mepeace.org for posting my blogs from Israel.
The following contains direct testimony, historical narratives and information distilled from peacemakers, Israeli politicians, educators, Global Trustees from the United Religions Initiative (URI), the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA), Sufi, Druze and Bedouin Sheikhs, the International Forum for Literature and Culture (IFLAC), Palestinian Christians, woman activists, Jewish Rabbis, The West Bank and Hebron, Israeli Settlers and Palestinians living in the West Bank. This is a personal snapshot of my experience, it goes without saying that there are many more individuals and organizations doing important work not mentioned here.
I hope you enjoy the read and encourage you to Google any of the groups to learn more of the valuable work that’s being done—and please do ask or share anything with me on your mind, or just to say hello.
In your service,
Jerusalem Al Quds, The Holy
Bounding about the rugged cobbled stone roads of Jerusalem’s Old City is a pedestrian affair. After a full day of visiting holy sites and traversing crowded marketplaces down streets whose width the size of a small alley, the toll paid is by the bones in one’s feet. This is, of course, if you can get away unscathed from shop owners who literally pull you into their stores, urging you to buy such-and-such, suggesting any number of critical transactions.
The Old City after hours was a different experience altogether. The night before we had moved through the narrow market streets to reach the Western Wall to pray, every shop was closed with hatches battened, the city silent, empty; the vibe surreal. In the distance a group of soldiers hung around the security x-ray marking the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza.
Western Wall at Midnight
The Western Wall is the most holy site in Judaism, harkening back to the Second Temple, whose cornerstone was laid by Zerubbabel in 516 BCE (led the Jewish return from Babylonian Captivity), added on by King Herod in 19 BCE and laid waste by the Romans in 70 CE. This wall of huge stones supported the Jewish Second Temple, which is now the location of Islam’s third holiest place of worship, Al-Haram Ash-Sharif (Arabic, “Noble Sanctuary”), home to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Today, a portion of the Second Temple complex remains, the Temple Mount, and is a place of religious worship which can be seen live 24/7 with an online streaming camera either here or here.
In the centuries after the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt (132-135 CE) Jews were banned from entering occupied Jerusalem by Roman edict and would gather on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city expressing great sorrow, lamenting the Temple’s destruction and consequent dispersal of the Jewish people. When Jewish worshippers were eventually allowed to visit the wall, this tradition continued and the site was identified as the “Wailing Wall”. The term Western Wall is in more common usage today, especially since the Six Day War in 1967 when the surrounding area was again under Jewish control.
At midnight the Western Wall was a sight to see lit up by the luminescent glow from giant flood lights, Orthodox Jews bowing and praying, men on the left of the partition, women on the right. One can see folded pieces of paper containing prayers and messages pressed into the 3,000 year old crevices between each massive stone. As a sign of respect, head coverings are available to borrow for those who wish to pray at the wall. I performed Tefillin in 2004 and prayed for peace between all the peoples of the Middle East and of the West. Likewise, this year in 2009, I prayed for peace, prosperity and economic healing for those suffering in the world.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Old City during daytime hours was bustling with a cacophonous energy; a sharp contrast. As we turned from Muristan onto King David Street, I could hear hymnal singing filtering up through the alleyways while approaching the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. Muristan (from Persian “Hospital”) is the section of the city where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located, site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.
Muristan refers to a hospital that provided care for pilgrims in the Holy City since around 600 CE, later becoming the headquarters for the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Singing voices grew louder as we neared the Holy Sepulchre finally revealing a group of Ethiopian and Nigerian Christians adorned in bright yellows, reds and greens, colors characteristic of African garb. The singing pilgrims faced the church in rows; this was the location where Jesus (Heb. “Yeshua”) had suffered on the cross, a sacrifice and scriptural fulfillment venerated by more than a billion Christians around the world. Upon entering the Sepulchre, the sincere reverence emanated by those present captured my attention and an emotional solemnity came over me.
One of the holiest sites in Christendom, the Holy Sepulchre is purported to have been built atop Golgotha or Calvary Hill. It is maintained by a ‘status quo’ of several primary religious custodians: Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian, with minor roles played by Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian denominations.
The key holder and gate keeper of the church are held by two prominent Jerusalem families. In 1192, five years after defeating the Crusader Kingdom in Jerusalem, Muslim ruler Salah ad-Din (Arabic, “reformer” or “redeemer of the Religion”) gave the key of the Sepulchre to be managed by the Joudeh family and the door to be kept by the Nusseibeh family, who had been custodians of the church since 637. Even now, twice each day, a Joudeh family member brings the key to the door, which is locked and unlocked by a Nusseibeh.
Each point of worship in the Sepulchre is opulent and uniquely ornate and most likely only of symbolic importance: the hole where the cross was mounted, the slab of marble where Yeshua’s body was prepared for burial, the Tomb where his body was laid; site of his resurrection three days later. The general location of Golgotha may be correct, however, the present area chosen was determined centuries after the events had taken place and as such, cannot be absolutely confirmed to be historically accurate. Nevertheless, it holds deep Spiritual significance for millions who worship there.
There is another site outside the current walls of the Old City called the Garden Tomb, which has some legitimate claims to being the historic site of Golgotha. While touring the location, we joined several Protestant Christian church groups listening to engaging presentations by volunteer guides. A large assembly from an African American church held a service with a rousing inspirational sermon, an experience not possible at the Holy Sepulchre.
Palestinian Right of Return: The Case of Eilaboun
The story of Jesus of Nazareth has many different interpretations and chroniclers throughout the ages, some historical—more, religious. From the sources I find the most compelling, his native Hebrew name was Yeshua and he was the son of Yusef and Maryam.
While staying with a lovely family of Palestinian Christians in the City of Eilaboun near the Sea of Galilee, they shared with me their pronunciation of Jesus’ real name as “Yesua Ben Maryam” (Jesus son of Mary, as opposed to son of Josef), with an obvious focus on the virgin birth by citing him as the “Son of Mary”. Randa Zriek-Sabag, her husband Ghassan, and their three charming daughters shared with us what it’s like to be an Arab living in Israel.
The Arabic speaking Palestinian Christians number at about 200,000 in Israel and draw a direct line to the original church of Christianity in Jerusalem, at its beginning comprised almost entirely of Jews that had become followers of Christ. Today, these Christians of the oldest religious lineal connection to Yeshua, have what would be by American standards ‘partial rights of citizenship’ in the modern State of Israel.
The town of Eilaboun is about 70% Christian and the site of a well-documented massacre that had occurred in 1948 by Israeli Defense forces. The town’s residents were forced out of the country into refugee camps in Lebanon. Hundreds of Arab villages like Eilaboun were systematically depopulated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but due to pressure from the Vatican mobilized by a Maronite Priest, Eilaboun stands as one of only a few Arab villages permitted to repatriate her citizens. Eilaboun's Palestinians were afforded the “right of return”.
Most refugees from Israel haven’t been as fortunate and still remain encamped in neighboring countries, the West Bank or Gaza. Feidel Zriek, an elder of Eilaboun, brought Rebecca and I to tour an area of stone rubble covering acres that had once been an Arab village named Hattin, near the “Horns of Hattin,” site of the famous defeat of the Crusaders by Salah ad-Din on July 4th, 1187 CE. All that was left standing of the empty town was the shell of an abandoned mosque.
Second Exodus: The Expulsion of Jews from Arab Countries
When discussing the ethnic cleansing of Arabs that had occurred in Israel, I would be remiss not to mention what is called by some the “Second Exodus” which in 1948-49 saw upwards of one million Jews, deprived of property and rights, expelled from neighboring Arab nations such as Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Iraq.
While Israel was given a UN mandate in the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (Resolution 181) near the end of 1947, Israel had not yet become a nation. British control of Palestine timed out in ‘48, and Israel declared its Independence on May 14th of that year. Immediately following this declaration, Israel was invaded by troops from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Ethnic tensions and fear ratcheted up on all sides during the conflict.
Professor Ada Aharoni, executive director of the International Forum for Literature and Culture (IFLAC), has testified extensively on this subject. In 1949, her family was ejected from Egypt, losing their home, bank accounts frozen (even Swiss accounts), and only allowed to leave with a few belongings and the clothes on their backs. Ada’s home was given to an Egyptian Army officer.
Not unlike the 132,000 Japanese Americans sequestered into World War II internment camps in 1942 by order of the United States and Canadian governments, innocent civilians were swept up in the storm of the Arab-Israeli conflict only a few years later.
Consequently, in 1948-49, ethnic cleansing happened on all sides of this country creating equation: Arabs forcibly removed from their homes in Israel, and Jews expulsed from their homes in Arab nations.
Politics, Not Religion
In my opinion, these epic atrocities of murder and displacement occurring on a massive scale are a function of war and politics—not religious differences. As war tactician Von Clausewitz famously said,
“It is of course well known that the only source of war is politics -- the intercourse of governments and peoples. . . . We maintain . . . that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.”
There is value in making this distinction between religion and politics; in identifying the root cause of the ruthless and brutal behavior we’ve seen on behalf of Empires littering history’s timeline.
Conversely, when we interview and audit our most treasured religious leaders, rarely do we find inflammation towards warfare and genocide, these fruits invariably are brought from political actors making war, using religion as a tool to control the masses and to mobilize foot soldiers. The lines differentiating politics and religion are often blurred, but it is my contention that dictatorial impulses are political and not to be confused with spiritually inspired teachings and/or divine revelation. The fact that myriad Empires conquering the known civilization over and over have been framed with religious veneer belies the reality that it’s a political war machine that gets the job done.
For an informative animated map showing in 90 seconds 5000 years of conquest conducted by 18 separate and distinct Empires worshipping more than ten different religionsclick here, or watch below, I highly recommend it.
In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, it is clear that his execution was chiefly based on political concerns, not religious ones. The justification for his crucifixion may have been cloaked in religious trappings, but there were many religious sects within the Holy Land that practiced for hundreds of years relatively unmolested what would be considered blasphemous beliefs, such as the Essenes at Qumran (possible source of the Dead Sea Scolls), the Notzrim or Nazoraeans and others.
These alternate heretical sects were tolerated, not annihilated. The forces that aligned to take out this revolutionary man sporting revolutionary ideals were driven by political motivations to eliminate a threat to those in power.
The sun hung in the sky as an opaque perfect white disc, concealed from direct view by the misty canopy of stratocumulus clouds. Rebecca and I were traveling in the Galil, the northern region of Israel where Yeshua began his ministry. At the site of the Sermon on the Mount, several churches representing different denominations commemorate what could be considered the core philosophy and message of Jesus. The Beatitudes were a shock doctrine delivered to upturn an upside-down world; a world all too familiar, in which political, financial and military power would dispassionately crush any opposition at the first sign of insurgency.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God.”
To the powers that be, these were fighting words, especially when people began to rally behind this radically different worldview and question the status quo. When combined with later teachings warning about the spiritual degradation brought on by excessive materialism, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the gospel Yeshua was preaching had to be answered by those in power; these ideas had to be shut down and the messenger brought to a violent end.
In history, the people in power often do not recognize their state of denial brought on by the intoxication of authority. Whether in Wall Street or in the Emperor’s Palace, a rigid pattern of thinking blinds leaders into a false sense of security unable to perceive a catastrophe in the making. The constant suppression of an ‘enemy’ or ‘enemy ideas’, in many cases gives steady rise to a people’s indefatigable resolve to never surrender and never give up.
Hebron – The West Bank
Rabbi Eliyahu McLean and Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari met us at our hotel outside of the Old City in Jerusalem.
Hebron is an ancient Biblical city and a flash point in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. It is located in the West Bank, one of three internationally contested regions occupied by the State of Israel. They are the West Bank and Gaza (occupied since 1967), and the Golan Heights ceded by Syria in 1967.
Currently in the Palestinian Territories, Fatah (aka Palestinian Authority) controls parts of the West Bank, while the religious group and democratically elected Hamas, cited as a terrorist organization by the United States government, exacts control in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has militarily occupied these lands as a result of international warfare and continues to do so due to security concerns. Meanwhile, all the Arab citizens of West Bank and Gaza have been essentially ‘stateless persons’ without rights of citizenship since 1967.
There are six Jewish settlements in the city of Hebron, segregated from the Arab population, with friction and violence erupting between residents on a regular basis. Massacres on both sides have been a part of the recent history. The Jewish settlers are protected by the Israeli Defense Forces. Streets and sections of the city have been blocked off by huge cement barricades; rusted fencing, gates and barbed wire separate Arab and Jew.
It’s important to note that the Jewish settlements have been declared illegal by a majority of international and national entities, save the United States and Israel. The settlements between the West Bank, Gaza, Golan and East Jerusalem are home to nearly 500,000 Jewish residents, with the West Bank home to the largest settler population of 282,000 (est. 2006).
The well-known “two-state solution”, creating a sovereign Palestinian nation alongside the State of Israel, is usually framed as the Gaza Strip and West Bank being Palestine, with East Jerusalem as her capital. The right wing religious forces in Israel reject the notion of ‘trading land for peace’. Although the Jewish settlements in Gaza were removed in 2005 with Israel’s pull-out, a two-state solution with an Israeli pull-out from the West Bank is hard to envision. The viability of a complete withdrawal from the West Bank (Israeli forces and Jewish settlers) now seems to be more improbable than ever due to the right-wing nationalist swing in the elections today.
Three Faiths, One Father
The "Cave of the Patriarchs", where Abraham is entombed, is located in the old city of Hebron and is revered as the second holiest site in Judaism, the fourth in Islam. Christianity, Islam and Judaism, at an estimated total of 3.6 billion members, are known as the “Abrahamic Religions”, as they all claim to have descended from the Tribe of Abraham.
The Cave of the Patriarchs is the second holiest site for Jews (after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and is also venerated by Christians and Muslims all of whom have some traditions which maintain that the site is the burial place of four Biblical couples: (1) Adam and Eve; (2) Abraham and Sarah; (3) Isaac and Rebekah; (4) Jacob and Leah, though some early Christians asserted that Adam lies buried under Golgotha.
The word Hebron means ‘colleague’, ‘unite’ or ‘friend’, and yet, in Hebron, the ever present tension of conflict can be felt viscerally. This is an ironic reality considering the Abrahamic Faiths all consider Hebron to be the burial place of their common Patriarch—a truth that could potentially unite is used to further discord and incite more violence.
Meeting with Palestinian Nonviolence Activists
We made our way through a sparse marketplace consisting of narrow avenues snaking through Hebron’s old city, little shops flanking our path. We arrived at a small clothing shop and were greeted by three enthusiastic gentlemen. Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi of the Palestinian Peace Society, Tareq J. al Tamini of Volunteering for Peace and Yusef Joudeh with United Nations relief programs.
There was much terse discussion detailing the anguish caused by the war in Gaza, about how relatives were killed, homes destroyed. The grief was a resigned exasperation, restrained and professional but the depth of their sorrow unmistakable. It was a transcendent act of faith for these Palestinians to be speaking to the necessity of nonviolent organizing in the context of Gaza.
Ms. Reem al Sharif, a principal at a local school, joined us and shared a story of persistent harassment by the Israeli soldiers towards women teachers and students at checkpoints leading to their school. She also told us of their campus guardhouse being burned down by neighboring Jewish settlers. It has to be noted that these flare-ups in Hebron are among the most extreme cases of ethnic violence and friction between Arabs and Jews.
Ms. Bekah Wolf, an American married to a Palestinian activist told us of her husband who's currently being held in prison, or as it’s termed here “administrative detention”. This status of administrative detention is most easily understood as being Guantanamo-esque, meaning, that the enemy to the state can be held without due process for periods of six months. Every six months it is reviewed and usually renewed by the court. Bekah explained that the leaders of their Palestinian groups keep getting arrested in the middle of the night without any explanation; no criminal charges are brought. Palestinians engaged in nonviolent resistance or peace activism is a detail with little meaning to the arresting authorities.
She handed me a business card that didn’t have a name on it, and explained that ‘everyone keeps getting arrested’ so they just make a default organizational card, that way they save on expenses by just filling in the name by hand. Ms. Wolf explained that the arrests seem to be a concerted strategy to disrupt organizing of any kind. Currently, there are over 11,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel, 8,456 from the West Bank.
Led by Tareq and Taleb, we toured areas of Hebron that have been shut off from traffic, houses seized and/or demolished, areas carved out for settlements to be built. There were security cameras sensing the travel of persons below, watching our every move.
As we walked through the streets we approached what looked like a pill-box in the middle of the marketplace. A pill-box is a defensive fortification like those seen on the beachhead in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”. Constructed of cement or hardened steel they are used as a firing point for machine guns and/or assault rifles aiming through small slits. The enclosure was wrapped in dangerous coiled barbed wire, as kids ran around kicking a ball and folks went about their everyday business in the marketplace. I have to say the whole thing was surreal. This was a protected machine gun nest in the middle of family life in the city. There were lookouts on high all throughout the area with Israeli soldiers visible as silhouettes peeking through.
One market thruway had a ceiling of tightly knit steel fencing with bricks, bottles and other various forms of rubbish littering the protective cover. It was installed to protect Palestinians from the garbage and junk being thrown by Jewish settlers living above the marketplace. This web-like fencing covering the avenue is the namesake of the documentary film “In The Spider’s Web”.
We then went to a restricted area where Palestinians live but are completely closed off from traffic with the only access possible by another checkpoint. Perceived as a security risk, only a few members of our entourage went in. As I went through the checkpoint, soldiers came out from behind barricades and proceeded to ask questions. They seemed a little bewildered by my presence there.
They spoke to me in Hebrew, I said, “English?”
“Where are you from?”
“St. Louis, Missouri – the United States.”
I handed him my card. The soldiers then turned their attention onto our Palestinian hosts, Tareq and Talib. Bursts back-and-forth of incomprehensible Hebrew followed. They asked for their papers and ID.
Our Palestinian escorts later explained we were let in because ‘internationals’ were with the group—if we weren’t present, the others would have never been allowed to pass.
This was a heavily policed residential city block. We encountered a man passing by, gently holding onto his pregnant wife flushed in the face and obviously fatigued. He explained she has high blood pressure and is in labor and they won’t allow an ambulance to take her to the hospital, so they travel on foot.
More barbed wire fences. Military watch towers; cameras.
An old women hiking down a hill complained, “We just want cars to be let in!” flailing her arms in frustration. I know it’s controversial to say, but this scene looked familiar with heavily armed soldiers policing a civilian population with checkpoints, demanding ID, machine gun nests at the ready—it reminded me of portrayals I’ve seen of some of history’s most inhumane military occupations.
Eventually a police jeep pulled up with strobe lights flashing and the officers demanded an explanation for our presence. The same routine of rapid fire Hebrew, documents, ID; after a few minutes we were told that this was a military zone and we were to leave immediately.
On one hand Lieberman has called for bombing of "all their (Palestinians) places of business in Ramallah, for example," as a response to terror attacks; on the other hand, Rabbi Froman, angers many by meeting with Hamas leaders to dialog in an effort to reach diplomatic solutions.
Rabbi Froman was teaching when we met, eagerly swimming in scripture with his students, tugging on his Gandalfian white beard. The idea of blocking any negotiations with Hamas has been repudiated by Froman, as he explained in May of 2008,
“The root of the problem is Israeli and American arrogance. If Israeli governments had grasped these opportunities, not only would a great deal of bloodshed been spared and there would be a cease-fire between our two peoples, but there would have been no attack on the World Trade Center, and no American invasion of Iraq.”
In War, it is Life that is the Loser
Rabbi Eliyahu McLean brought us to meet friends of his living in Tekoa, Seth and Sherry Mandell. The Mandell’s young son, Koby, was murdered by Palestinians in 2001. He had skipped school to go hiking with his friend Yusef, later the boys were found brutally bludgeoned to death. Sherry rose above her immense grief into a higher state of being that we can all take heart from.
She penned a poignant memoir called "The Blessings of a Broken Heart." She and her husband founded the Koby Mandell Fund, which is dedicated to helping other victims of terror. These young lives lost on both sides of the conflict, forever changing hearts and minds, should be the bottom line consideration in any peacekeeping mission; the principle of ''safety for all" given primacy in any negotiation as a basic and non-negotiable human right.
It is hard to get this message out today without being inundated with static from all corners being charged with accusations of being anti-Israel or a closet Zionist (I’ve been accused of both). There is the plight of innocents wrapped up in this tragic drama, children whose lives are traumatized and forever altered. We must think of them before rallying to one side or another’s rhetoric. To me, there are two sides to this conflict, the authors of war on one side and the people on the other. The television coverage seems to only view the crisis through a political lens largely ignoring the human catastrophe both in spiritual and material terms. The truth gets lost in the wreckage of biased reporting.
Passing of the Technological Baton
The messengers and message still gets shut down today, with monolithic controls upon the box that most all of us watch; the mainstream media handled by a handful of corporate vendors. Certain stories and perspectives are simply not allowed to see the light of day, consequently, those ideas or “memes” are forbidden from replicating; it’s kind of like ideological sterilization. But new tools of communication have emerged.
Throughout history, inventions furthering the means for communication and science have flourished and expanded in different parts of the world, migrating from era-to-era, continent to continent. Concentrations of these creative spurts have moved around geographically due to a myriad of sociological and cultural factors; we’ve seen a passing of the technological baton from one place to another.
- Money and writing appeared with the Agricultural Revolution in the fertile crescent of the Middle East over seven thousand years ago with small tokens evolving into wedged indentations in wet clay known as cuneiform writing.
- China developed the mass manufacture of paper and wood block printing around the first century CE.
- Numerous innovations in chemistry, math, medicine and science during the Islamic Golden Age in the Middle East and West Asia spanning an incredible five or more centuries starting from 700CE.
- Europe’s Renaissance stimulates a bout of creative activity and scientific revolution between the 14th and 17th centuries, eventually leading to inventions such as the telescope, slide rule, adding machine and the steam engine.
- The baton then got tossed over the Atlantic to America for a flurry of inventiveness including the cotton gin, typewriter, sewing machine, free public schools, airplane, motion picture, microprocessor, personal computer and what you’re enjoying right now, E-mail…
The times are heady, as now the message of peace and equality can be amplified by new found technologies enabling the instant dissemination of communication and information across the planet.
Today’s revolution in information and communication lets all of us be the messengers to one another. Connections between peoples, formally isolated, are being made. Despite national and religious differences, cultural bonds are emerging across borders. Seeds are being planted and a forest of commonality is growing up; a collective voice of humanity is coming alive. The technological baton has now been delivered to all the people of the world.
Yes, there is still a massive deficit in opportunity between the poor and rich, a technological discrimination, a digital divide where more than half the citizens of Earth have yet to hear a dial tone.
Yes, this technology is being used by fringe groups to spread a message of division, keeping peoples at fault from one another, teaching religious intolerance; inculcating hatred.
But the common voice of all humanity, digitally percolating in real time, is a new thing. In my eyes, the larger picture of transcontinental links, intercultural ties and interfaith collaboration will be the crème that rises to the top of this communicative evolution. A global vox populi only possible today.
The peacemakers are here on the ground in the Holy Land, quietly and humbly doing their work.
Dr. Yehuda Stolov, of the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA), is one of these meek and humble peacemakers. The IEA sponsors interfaith gatherings of people from all walks of life who practice different religions. In Israel, there are 20 active IEA groups that meet and share experiences and discover common ground between their various faith traditions. Jews, Muslims, Christians and adherents of other religions begin to develop a common narrative; a shared destiny as equal stakeholders in a mutually constructed bridge of cultural understanding. This is the bottom-up transformation that one day will be the foundation of a world at peace.
The IEA Vision: “The Interfaith Encounter Association is dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East through interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural study. We believe that, rather than being a cause of the problem, religion can and should be a source of the solution for conflicts that exist in the region and beyond.”
Ms. Elana Rozenman was the first peacemaker we connected with upon arriving in Jerusalem. She lives right on the border of East Jerusalem with her husband Tsvi, an expert in solar power technologies out of Technion University, the MIT of Israel. Elana is a former Global Trustee for the United Religions Initiative (URI) and currently executive director of TRUST-Emun, building mutual trust among the people in the region and founder of the Women’s Interfaith Network. Elana Rozenman has been an inspiration to many with her tireless work over the years bringing representatives of different religions together and encouraging women into positions of leadership in various projects. One is the growing United Religions Initiative (URI), an United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) affiliated non-governmental organization.
The Premble of the URI speaks volumes about the holistic mindfulness that drives this body:
“We, people of diverse religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions throughout the world, hereby establish the United Religions Initiative to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”
The URI is made up of cooperation circles, groups of 7 people or more, representing at least three different faith traditions. In the world today there are 400 cooperation circles registered with the URI. Rebecca Tobias, a URI Global Trustee, and Elana discussed important developments concerning the recent conflict in Gaza. These discussions continued with our Palestinian community leaders in Hebron.
Tereq al Tamini, also a URI Global Trustee, spoke of the importance of communicating a committed sense of urgency condemning violence wherever it occurs when discussing conflicts such as Gaza. He has been conducting seminars on nonviolent tactics along with Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi of the Palestinian Peace Society. Rabbi Eliyahu McLean emphasized the need to constantly focus on the positive progress in internal communications between representatives of URI.
That night, Hajj Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa, a founding member of Abrahamic Reunion, greeted us at his home on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. A family relative of his just had his home completely bulldozed earlier that day. Needless to say the event was psychologically traumatizing for all involved, even the Israeli soldiers burdened by the task. Ibrahim spoke about keeping the peace between enraged Palestinian onlookers and the Israeli house demolition squad. “There will be no bullets today!” he proclaimed. Everywhere we went in Jerusalem Ibrahim and his family name of El-Hawa were known. His family built the Islamic Center in Washington DC, and he has travelled extensively around the world promoting peace among the religions. One Bedouin shop keeper in Jerusalem said, “oh yes, Ibrahim, I know him always marching around saying shalom, salaam (peace).”
A Prayer for Peace and Unity Among All the Children of Abraham
Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari and I visited the Tomb of Abraham together. Aziz Bukhari is a Sufi Sheikh, a Spiritual and metaphysical religious sect linked to Islam. Some Sufis frame it as a “science” to bring one closer to God and a universal practice predating Islam. To me, Sufi precepts echo many of the knowledge based faith traditions such as Kabbalah, Baha’i, Sihk or Christian Science, the religion I was raised in. The universality of the Spiritual principles espoused by these faiths and the mainstrean religions that birthed them, bring humanity together, as opposed to building a sense of separation between our fellow human beings, or between mankind and Mother Earth.
We solemnly showed our reverence for each burial monument to the Biblical Patriarchs of Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and finally Abraham. The Sheihk and I met Rebecca and Eliyahu at the Tomb of Abraham and we all said a prayer overlooking our Patriarch...
“… to unite all the peoples of Abraham, to foster understanding, tolerance and compassion; To end strife and separation and engender the only possible destination for human progress, an understanding of one tribe, one garden and one family of humanity at peace; living in harmony with Mother Earth. God willing, Inshallah. Amein.”
I leave the Holy Land with this prayer echoing in my ears. Prayer is one thing, but moving the piano, so to speak, takes heavy lifting. A proper balance of inspiration and perspiration is a pre-requisite for any kind of real success in the material world—and usually the proper ratio is 10 to 1 in favor of the sweat. Now off to the airport for some heavy lifting, G-d willing.
In your service,
Byron Walker DeLear
Peacemakers in this report
Ada Aharoni is a professor at Technion University in Haifa, Israel. She is the Executive Director of the International Forum for Literature and Culture (IFLAC), and is an internationally recognized speaker and poet on the subject of creating a culture of peace.
Rebecca Tobias is the program director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics and a Global Trustee for the United Religions Initiative (URI). She sits on the boards of many non-governmental organizations concerned with promoting peace, plurality and religious understanding.
Elana Rozenman is a former Global Trustee for the United Religions Initiative (URI) and is currently the Executive Director of TRUST-Emun, building mutual trust among the people in the region and founder of the Women’s Interfaith Network.
Yehuda Stolov is the executive director of the Interfaith Encounter Association, an organization that works for sustainable peaceful inter-communal coexistence in Israel. Dr. Stolov is a member of many international interreligious organizations, including the Steering Committee for the United Nations Decade of Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace.
Eliyahu McLean is an internationally recognized peacemaker practicing in the Holy Land. Born a Sihk, and now a Hasidic Jew living in Jerusalem, McLean works to build understanding and dialog with all sides in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Eliyahu (Heb. “Elijah”) breaks bread during Shabbat with settlers and works with Palestinian activists. Rabbi McLean is a founding member of the Jerusalem Peacemakers and the Abrahamic Reunion.
Sheikh Aziz Bukhari is a Sufi Sheikh of the Naqshabandian branch, as well as being the head of the Uzbek Community in Jerusalem. He recently presented at an Middle East interfaith conference alongside Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Sheikh Bukhari is a founding member of the Jerusalem Peacemakers and the Abrahamic Reunion.
Randa Zriek is a Christian Arab journalist, mediator and group facilitator for high risk families in and around the Galilee area. She hosts regular meetings of Arab and Jewish Israeli's for the Interfaith Encounter Association and is a founding director of Change Begins from Within.
Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi of the Palestinian Peace Society, active with URI and Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
Tareq J. al Tamini is director of Volunteering for Peace and is a Global Trustee for the URI and is working on internationally sponsored economic develpment projects in Gaza and the West Bank.
Yusef Joudeh has been active with many United Nations relief programs and emergency response teams.
Ofer Lifschitz established the progressive political party Brit Olam and ran in the March 2006 and 2009 election for the Israeli parliament (Knesset). Brit Olam is a multi-cultural and multi-religious party supporting human rights and peace in Israel.
Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa is a walking philanthropist and a natural leader in the peacemaker community in the Holy Land. He is a member of projects such as the Way of Sulha, Jerusalem Peacemakers and the Abrahamic Reunion.
Rabbi Menachem Froman is an orthodox interfaith leader in the Holy Land. He is the Chief Rabbi in the West Bank settlement Tekoa, and is known for engaging in dialog between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, focusing on using religion as a tool and source for recognizing the humanity and dignity of all Palestinians.
Eyal Raviv is the founder and creative director of mepeace.org, a platform where peacemakers and social change activists can share ideas, exchange information and inspire one another in their ongoing efforts.