Friday, 29 March 2019

Giving Peace a Chance in the Middle East

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The Jerusalem skyline taking in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque The Jerusalem skyline taking in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque

Uniting Church ministers and members have joined friends from the Australian Jewish community, ecumenical colleagues and LGBTIQ NGO representatives on a one-week study tour of Israel and Palestine.

The tour called “Give Peace a Chance” began in East Jerusalem on 7 March.

CITY OF FAITH

The first thing you notice as you enter Jerusalem is the presence of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community – the Haredi.

Bearded men in black hats and suits walk purposefully around the streets their hair curls dangling below their earlobes.

Some wear shtreimels - a very striking fur hat. Young boys scurry around with long tassels hanging out from under their white shirts.

Less visible are Haredi women, who have to conform to a strict modesty code. When Haredi women are outside, they’re dressed in full length skirts and have their heads covered.

The Muslim presence in Jerusalem is most noticeable around prayer times.

Five calls to prayer ring out over loud speakers during the day.

The call to the Dawn Prayer is at 4am. It’s hard to miss, even for heavy sleepers.

The Christian presence manifests itself in the onion-shaped Orthodox church domes that dot the cityscape.

There are also hordes of Christian pilgrims shuffling along the smooth paving stones of Jerusalem’s Old City, making their way to and from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This is the place that Christian churches have settled on as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre people kneel in prayer at the Crucifixion altar - the site of the Cross.

Others prostrate themselves to touch the Stone of Unction - a marble slab in the place Jesus’ body was said to have been laid out and anointed.

On the day we visited, the queue was too long to get into the Holy Tomb.

There are so many holy sites in Jerusalem. A number have shared significance across the Abrahamic faiths.

In any panoramic view of the Old City, your eye is instantly drawn to the Temple Mount, also known in Arabic as Haram al-Sharif meaning “Noble Sanctuary”. It’s a sacred place for both Jews and Muslims.

Jewish tradition has it that the exposed bedrock here is Mount Moriah – the place where the world was formed. It’s also said to be where Abraham bound his son Isaac for sacrifice, and later the centre of the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

From here Muslims also believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven for divine consultations, in the ‘night journey’ described in the Quran.

When the Rashidun Caliphate conquered Jerusalem in 637 its rulers built a gleaming gold-domed shrine called the Dome of the Rock on the site.

Just along from the Dome of the Rock is the al-Aqsa Mosque. Muslims believe one prayer said there is worth 500 more than in a normal mosque.

Below these landmarks sits the Western Wall, the holiest place that Jews are permitted to pray.

The buzz of prayer when shabbat begins at sunset on a Friday is amazing.

There’s a beautiful and timeless spiritual energy as Yeshiva students in shawls and kippahs stand alongside fellow Jews, swaying and singing in lilting Hebrew, and swallows fly to their nests in the ancient stones of the Western Wall.

There’s so much devotion within one square kilometre, it’s hard to believe that this is not a more peaceful place.

CONFLICT STUDIES

Participants in Give Peace a Chance were given a comprehensive backgrounding on the Middle East conflict at the start of our tour.

Progress towards the long hoped for ‘two state solution’ has been stalled for over a decade on the watch of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Netanyahu is a renowned hawk who has led Israel’s centre-right Likud party for the best part of 25 years.

On the Palestinian side, Mr Abbas is 83 and in declining health. There are worries about how Palestinian moderates in the ruling Fatah party will fare if challenged by their extremist rivals Hamas in the post-Abbas era.

Distrust runs deep on both sides.

Peace at any cost doesn’t wash with sceptical Israelis, who fear being taken for “freiers” in any peace deal with Palestinians, explained Gil Hoffman, Chief political correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.

Freier is the Yiddish word for a sucker.

For their part, many Palestinians are strident in their rejection of what they call “normalisation” of relations with Israelis while the Occupation continues.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

When we arrived in Jerusalem election campaigning for Israel’s general election on 9 April was already in full swing, with party posters out on display.

At this election, Prime Minister Netanyahu faces his most serious electoral challenge in 10 years, with former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition mounting a strong campaign.

Most Israeli Governments are coalitions, thanks to Israel’s list-based electoral system, under which any party that gets more than 3.25% of the vote is entitled to a seat in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset.

In Australia, that figure won’t even get you public funding.

It’s a system that gives small parties, particularly religious parties, great power relative to their electoral support.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party almost always form part of the governing coalition.

Israel is an electorate highly focused on security, and the threats to it – both actual and perceived – are the staple of both politics and conversation.

The major parties’ slogans are aimed firmly at claiming the centre-right ground.

Likud’s slogan is “Netanyahu. Right-wing. Strong”, while Blue and White’s is “Israel, before everything.”

Security concerns aside, there is growing disquiet among Israelis about the 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, which must be resolved for any peace deal to succeed.

There is open acknowledgement that building people-to-people relationships is more likely to advance peace than the usual oppositional political conversations.

DUELLING NARRATIVES

The Give Peace a Chance tour was conducted in a dual narrative format.

Dual refers primarily to the viewpoints of Israelis and Palestinians. There are many other dual narratives in Israel - religious and secular, gay and straight.

From time to time this becomes a duel of narratives.

Across the week of our tour more than 30 educators, entrepreneurs, journalists, senior officials, activists and others from many perspectives spoke to us.

There was plenty of powerful storytelling.

The personal testimonies shared by members of grassroots peace organisations were particularly moving.

Palestinian Moira Jilani of the Parents Circle spoke of her husband being shot at point blank range at a checkpoint by an Israeli soldier and left to die in 2010.

Her colleague Israeli Ben Kfir spoke of the pain, anger and despair when his daughter Yael was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber at a bus stop outside her army base in 2003.

“I’m still angry at politicians. I’m still angry at God and still angry with my myself,” said Ben.

“Bringing peace closer is my response to Yael’s death.”

“We have to start talking. We’re doomed if we don’t,” said Moira, adding, “There is reconciliation. I’ve experienced it. I still have that hope.”

Moira, Ben and more than 600 other members of the Parents Circle Families Forum share their stories regularly with Israeli school students, and anyone else willing to listen.

THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY

Give Peace a Chance participants were blessed by the contribution of passionate and dynamic Israeli educators.

One session with Joe Perlov and Rabbi Shimon Felix of Regarding Israel explained 2500 years of Israel’s changing borders using maps marked out with masking tape on the hotel carpet.

Alienation from Jerusalem has been a central part of Jewish identity since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. The victory parade with soldiers carrying the looted Menorah and Table of the Bread of God's Presence through the streets is memorialised on the Arch of Titus near the Forum in Rome.

The hope of rebuilding the Temple is a pillar of Jewish religious consciousness.

L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim "Next Year in Jerusalem!" is the prayer sung each year at the end of the Jewish festivals of Passover and Yom Kippur.

It’s more than a prayer to return to the Holy City. It’s a prayer of hope for future redemption.

Two educators Dr Debbie Weissman and Dr Rachael Korazim shared fascinating historical and sociological insights ahead of our group’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.

The visit to Yad Vashem is very confronting. The dehumanising descent from anti-semitism to genocide is chronicled in all its horror.

Walking over a glass floor above a pile of shoes from victims of the gas chambers was just one hideous and disturbing example of what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.

The photographs and notes of those trapped in hopeless struggles for survival were a testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

Dr Korazim unpacked for us the deep psychological trauma of the Holocaust that was carried into the new nation of Israel, including the competing apportionment of blame.

Rather than sympathy, survivors often met harsh judgement for “going like sheep to the slaughter.”

Hasidic Jews, for example, described the Holocaust as a judgement on Zionism for preempting the Messiah in their return to Israel.

Zionists on the other hand blamed the Holocaust on Jews’ failure to fully embrace Zionism.

Dr Korazim explained how the Holocaust narrative had changed over time.

It was only once the children of survivors ascended to positions of influence in Israeli society, she said, that Israel started listening to survivor stories.

BEYOND THE WALL

Everywhere the Give Peace a Chance group went we introduced ourselves as a diverse group of people seeking to build peaceful relationships at a people-to-people level.

We were people of faith, Christian (Catholic, Uniting, Baptist and Hillsong) and Jewish and people of no faith at all. We had people who identified as straight and as gay.

Some had been to Israel and Palestine many times before, while for others like me it was our first visit.

In Jerusalem we visited significant religious sites, and joined locals for a Shabbat dinner.

In line with the dual narrative format, we also had the opportunity to see how Palestinians were living, just beyond the separation wall near Bethlehem.

At the Aida Refugee Camp, Palestinians displaced by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 still have keys to their former homes in the hope to one day exercise a right of return.

There is a heavy air of resentment.

Murals in the Camp list the names of Palestinian children killed in battles with Israeli security forces.

Palestinians describe the creation of Israel as the “Nakba” – Arabic for catastrophe.

More than 700,000 people fled or were expelled from their homes in that upheaval, and paramilitaries linked to Zionist groups carried out a number of atrocities.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have also been imprisoned, often without trial since the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The eerie wall, Israeli watchtowers and the run-down feel of the neighbourhood make for a sombre visit.

SYNAGOGUE AND STATE

Give Peace a Chance participants heard first hand of tensions between the religious and secular in Israel.

Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was prohibited in Israel in 1992, and a quarter of a million people attended Tel Aviv's 20th annual Pride Parade last year.

Yet marriage in Israel remains an entirely religious institution.

Despite five attempts in the last 10 years, the Knesset has failed to approve laws to allow same-sex marriages in Israel.

Conservative religious parties are the ones who have so far stymied progress.

At the same time religious conservatives have won controversial concessions for their communities.

For example, all Israeli citizens are required to complete up to three years of military service from the age of 18 regardless of gender. However, tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox Jews are excused from military service if they pursue religious studies.

Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Government must ensure basic equality but the ultra-Orthodox are continuing to resist this push.

A wide range of speakers made themselves available to speak with our group throughout the week-long tour - from the Deputy Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Ziad Abu Amr to Alon Amir, Israel’s Mr Eurovision. Israel hosts this year’s Eurovision Song Contest from 14-18 May.

Alon explained the longstanding tradition of making political statements in song at Eurovision, and how this year’s event is being targeted by supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.

GO WEST

After three nights in the Holy City, we travelled into the West Bank, visiting the Dead Sea and Jericho for one night followed by a night in the Palestinian capital Ramallah.

The difficulties of life under occupation for Palestinians were most obvious at the long queues around the heavily militarised checkpoints.

Water tanks on the top of apartment blocks were an indicator of the precariousness of the water supply.

Israeli settlements – often cited as the biggest obstacle to a Middle East peace deal - are prominent and numerous.

So are the private roads and security infrastructure needed to serve them.

B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories estimates there are more than 620,000 Israeli citizens living in more than 200 settlements in the West Bank.

If Israel withdrew from the West Bank the same way it did from the Gaza Strip in 2005, that’d be quite an exodus.

An Israeli settler family in Efrat extended the tour group a gracious welcome.

The man of the house stressed the settlers’ specific historical connection to the land pre-dating 1948, and expressed his hope for fraternal relations with the Palestinian neighbours he met in local supermarkets.

Not all relations between Palestinians and Israeli settlers are cordial. In fact attacks on the West Bank seem to be on the rise.

Shortly after we left Israel a 19 year-old IDF officer and a Rabbi were murdered at a West Bank bus stop.

The residual memories of incidents like this are deeply held in the minds of Jewish members of our party.

Many knew about when this or that attack had happened and what the gruesome circumstances were.

Palestinians have their own stories of violence.

At the Aida Refugee Camp, Palestinian residents say seven children have been killed by Israeli fire since the erection of the nearby Separation Wall in 2005.

At no point of the tour, did I myself feel unsafe, not even when an Israeli jet flew close overhead when we were meeting the Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister in his office.

But fear and othering are barriers to peace that loom as large as the separation wall between the two peoples.

FINDING HOPE

There were plenty of hopeful stories.

The Palestinian capital Ramallah is a vibrant city and the work of entrepreneurs particularly in the tech sector is bringing some hope to a well-educated younger generation.

Just down the road, the planned city of Rawabi is a breathtaking billion-dollar development driven by Palestinian-American businessman Bashar Masri with backing from investors in Qatar and the Palestinian Authority.

A glossy if overly earnest event guide This Week in Palestine spruiks everything from film screenings to fine dining.

There’s even a swank Anita gelato store in Ramallah, just like the one at Bondi Beach.

So life on the West Bank is pretty good for some.

GIMME SHELTER

The Give Peace a Chance tour concluded on 15 March after three nights in Tel Aviv which included a visit to a collective farm (moshav) and the city of Sderot in southern Israel.

Residents here maintain a constant vigil against rocket and mortar fire from the nearby Gaza Strip, to the point that even children’s playgrounds have bomb shelters.

The reality of security fears was brought home during the “last supper” of the tour, when two missiles from Gaza flew over Tel Aviv.

One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence shield, while the other fell off target.

The attack was the first of its kind in five years.

It was enough though for Israel’s second biggest city to sound the warning sirens and open up bomb shelters. The Israeli Defence Force also launched retaliatory air strikes into Gaza.

It was a stark reminder of the absence of peace.

The emotional rollercoaster continued the next day, when news filtered through of the horrific mosque attack in Christchurch.

Remaining group members heard the news of the Islamophobic attack while on a side trip to the Mount of Beatitudes in northern Israel.

Jesus’ words “Blessed are the peacemakers” resonated even more powerfully as everyone prayed together for the victims and their families, for peace in the Middle East and our conflict-filled world.

I hope our prayers are answered soon.

The many passionate and sincere people we met on our journey deserve the chance to live side-by-side in peace and security.

"Next Year in Jerusalem!" as the Jewish prayer goes.

Inshallah – God willing - as Muslims say.


The Give Peace a Chance study tour was organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and was made possible by a philanthropic donation by Jonathan and Renee Pinshaw.

Participants are already looking at building on the bonds forged on the tour and are seeking positive peacebuilding opportunities such as the EcoPeace Middle East project to work on together in the future.