By LARRY SNIDER
Sunday, September 07, 2008
SPECIAL TO THE TRENTON TIMES
On March 24, twenty people from the Philadelphia area flew together from Newark to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel. These twenty, actually nineteen were local Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy and lay leaders who I brought together to form the Delaware Valley Interfaith Delegation To Israel/Palestine. The twentieth member of our group, my Rabbi, Sandy Roth of Kehilat HaNahar, (kehilathanahar.org), in New Hope, Pa., already was in Israel and would be meeting us at the airport along with Leah Green, director of the Compassionate Listening Project, (compassionatelistening.org), and Maha El-Taji, her associate.
In less than a year, I put together an interfaith journey, got my rabbi and the Rev. Al Krass to agree to take part and help me, and got Leah to alter the format of her 21 previous delegations, (made up of people from across the United States and Canada) to accommodate a local interfaith delegation. I had been a member of her delegation in 2001. We built a delegation that agreed to meet regularly, raise the money together, study Compassionate Listening together, make the trip and return to work together to tell the stories we heard to educate the public about the Middle East, and encourage individuals to become involved in peacemaking.
Our agenda took us to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Al Arroub, Beit Jalah, Ramallah, Neve Shalon-Wahat-as-Salaam; the Oasis for Peace and other locations. But we began in Jerusalem by walking up the cobblestone hill through the Lion's Gate to the Ecce Homo Convent and Pilgrim House on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City where we stayed. After an abbreviated three faiths tour which took us to the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we ate dinner at Ecce Homo and had our first true Compassionate Listening encounter with Rami Elhanan and Mazen Farrraj of the Parent's Circle (theparentscircle.com). Rami told us how he had lost his 14-year-old daughter in a bombing in Jerusalem and Mazen told us how his father had been shot dead by Israeli security during the second Intifada and he was prevented from traveling from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem to see his father's body until the next day.
"First you want to get even," said Rami. "This is the easy way. You ask yourself; will killing anyone bring her back? After a long process, you come to the other option. You ask: What can you do personally to prevent this unbearable pain from others?" he continued. "About a year later I met Yitzhak Frankenthal. He told me the story of his son and about the organization he created for those who lost family members. He invited me to a meeting. I was detached and very cynical," Rami continued. "It was the first time I actually met Palestinians. They were hugging me. I'm not a highly religious person, but from that moment on I devoted my life to talking to everyone ... by creating a dialogue and listening to the pain of the other," he noted.
"When we start to talk to each other we can deal with each other," said Mazen. "This gives me a reason to get up in the morning, "said Rami. "One thousand lectures to Israeli and Palestinian kids. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Tell people that there are some sane people," he continued. Mazen then told all of us: "You are my hope. Send my message!"
While it was an extraordinary message, it was only the first of many we heard from politicians, peace activists, academics, and religious and secular leaders. Another was from David Wilder, the spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Hebron, (hebron.com). We traveled to Hebron after a morning at Yad Vashem and a stop in Bethlehem, where we had lunch with Zoughbi al-Zoughbi, the Christian Palestinian director of Wi'am, (alashah.org), the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, and then heard from Salah Shouky, a Bethlehem city councilman and member of Hamas.
We met on the second day as a group to begin our formal Compassionate Listening training and ran into an issue about our capacity to listen with open hearts to David Wilder, who through his writings could be identified as a fundamentalist. We had issues as well with Mr. Shouky, but the delegation was not aware of his inclusion on our schedule.
It was my belief that we needed to hear from all sides to carry home a message of hope and challenge that truly represented the conflict. So we had to not only listen to David, but try to determine what motivated this man. It turned out that David went out of his way to make us comfortable, even arranging for a tour of Abraham's Tomb/Ibrahimi Mosque in which our Jewish, Christian and Muslim delegation could go through together. David spent his young life in Bucks County, Pa. (near where I live), and had migrated to the wilds of New Jersey where it turned out he attended a Hebrew Academy in which Sandy's mother had him as a student. He bought everyone cold drinks in a small café near the Tomb and told us about the history of the Jewish people in Hebron. We were too late to get into the Mosque until the next day.
We traveled on to the office of the Palestinian Governor of Hebron, Hussein Al'Araj, and were divided into small groups for overnight stays in and around Hebron with members of the Palestine Peace Society of Hebron, (email@example.com). During our journey we listened to Suleiman al-Hamri, a founder of Combatants for Peace, (combatantsforpeace.ps), Ester Golan, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor and peace activist, (geocities.com/Ester--Golan), Risa Zoll, of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, (btselem.org), Dr. Yehuda Stolov, director of the Interfaith Encounter Association (interfaith-encounter.org), Dr. Muhammed Essawi, president, Al-Qasemi College, (qsa.ac.il), and many others.
We met a remarkable rabbi, Menachem Froman, a founder of Gush Emunim and peace activist near his home in Tekoa. Actually, he took us to his "synagogue," which was a ledge overlooking the Valley of Blessings, the caves and the hills before the Dead Sea with Jordan in the background. He told us the history of the valley, his own as a student at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva , where he was called to say Kaddish for the dead students and about his proposal for a truce that he had negotiated with Hamas. We sang Shalom/Salaam until it reverberated off every rocky hill in the distance. It was a truly sacred moment for all of us made more holy because of our run-in just before with soldiers and children at the Al Arroub Refugee Camp. Rabbi Froman's presence brought us back from a difficult experience in which rocks and bullets flew at the camp and we became either the intended or unintended witnesses.
We spent a morning with Dan Seaman, director of Israel's Government Press Office, (firstname.lastname@example.org), and learned more about the inner workings of the government. "With me it's not a question of interfaith. It's a question of family. One of the good things about Jerusalem ... I take my kids to the Old City all the time and show them the different churches and teach them about all the faiths. We live together," he said. "Reality from the Israeli side is that all the major parties two years ago recognized the right of a Palestinian state. After all the harsh realities, still a majority of the population want to reach a conclusion with the Palestinians," Seaman went on to say.
We had an extraordinary two-hour meeting with Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in his office in Ramallah. He said, "Today is a good day to meet. We are trying to do many things to bring this conflict to an end. Today I had a meeting with (Secretary of State Condelezza) Rice and (Israeli Defense Minister Ehud) Barak. We were talking about issues on the ground and improving confidence. Linking conditions and security. Palestinians need (security) at least as much as it is an Israeli need ... I think things are starting to improve. If we're building toward statehood we have to assume responsibility for services. What's the most important service? Security," he said. "We are prepared to do this in stages. Checkpoints: If something bad happens to Israel, it's bad for us. First thing, do no harm, a doctor says, then build confidence," he went on to say. "We are firmly committed to every agreement that we entered into. I say this in Arabic and in English," Fayyad continued.
"It is very important for your country to be involved. George Bush is the first sitting president to believe in our right to exist as a free nation. I can't tell you how important this was for us. That statement that he made in 2002 I view as the most important statement since 242, and he said it clearer. He said we have to build toward statehood," Fayyad said.
Yes is the message we need to send to the whole world. We need to regain a yes-we-can attitude," he concluded.
People of all persuasions asked us to carry their message. And that is what we are doing. But we have another message and it is the reason I put together an interfaith delegation. There are words in the Torah, the Bible and the Koran that impel us to seek peace. We need to experience each other in our communities, to enter mosques and churches as sisters and brothers and begin an interfaith dialogue on behalf of the promotion of Middle East peace. That is what our delegation is doing as we spread the words of the people that we heard. We are working to build bridges between us that lead to understanding and engagement.
When I awoke on the first day in Jerusalem at 4:30 a.m. to the Muslim Call to Prayer, I saw my roommate, Imam Abdul Halim Hassan on the floor beginning his morning prayers and I knew that we had much in common and much to learn from each other.
Larry Snider is coordinator of the Delaware Valley Interfaith Delegation To Israel/Palestine. A resident of Bensalem, Pa., he studies, develops programs and writes about Middle East peacemaking and is a member of Kehilat HaNahar; the Little Shul By The River in New Hope, Pa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.