Wednesday, 08 April 2020

Israel and Palestine work together in coronavirus response

Written by Rev Dr Rob McFarlane

I was recently part of a deeply moving Zoom conversation with two remarkable people from Israel-Palestine.

Christina Samara is a Palestinian Christian resident of East Jerusalem.  Elisa Moed is a Jewish Israeli citizen.  Christina and Elisa each own inbound travel companies in Palestine and Israel, respectively.  Between them, they operate an amazing venture, Breaking Bread Journeys, interfaith travel in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with a focus on understanding the “dual narratives”.

Our end of the conversation was a mixed group of Australians who have travelled with Breaking Bread on study tours organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD).  The group I travelled with in March 2019 was a mixture of Christian leaders and members of the rainbow community, including prominent leaders in LGBTI organisations as well as people well-known in the media.

We talked about the current situation and future possibilities.

The key message in the words of Christina, “The virus doesn’t distinguish between Palestinians and Israelis; Muslim, Jewish, Christian.  We are all in this together.”

Specifically, they are feeling the impact of the total shut-down of the tourism industry, as well as a massive unemployment rate across all industries, approaching 25%.  The state of Israel has far more recorded infections and deaths than the Palestinian Authority areas, especially Gaza - perhaps a combination of far greater overseas travel into Israel as well as some under-reporting. Ironically, the blockade of the Gaza Strip has largely protected the population from Coronavirus.

Faith impacts are enormous, especially at this time of Passover. Both the Orthodox and Western Easter are days away and the commencement of Ramadan is close behind. People are greatly concerned about basic things, like being able to shop for special foods. Religious processions, such as the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa are banned.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, are closed.  Some of the conversations that we are having in the Uniting Church are mirrored, for instance the majority of Rabbis agree that seders (Passover meals) can be held via Zoom, as Christians in Australia wrestle with the possibility of online Holy Communion.

Christina and Elisa also shared their personal struggles at this time, especially the impact on their children’s work, study and travel.

In all of this, there are signs of hope. Returning to Christina’s comment that the virus does not discriminate, there has been unprecedented (an oft-used word today!) cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In the COVID-19 response, steps are being taken to restrict the spread of the virus into the whole region. There is no distinction between Israeli and Palestinian territories. There is a massive program underway with Israeli medical personnel training up Palestinian health workers, as well as shipments of supplies.  Similarly, there is full cooperation around security and implementing shut-downs across the region.  It is significant that many doctors and 50% of pharmacists in Israel are Arab Israeli citizens, both Muslim and Christian. The big question as people look to the future is “Can this cooperation be leveraged moving forward?” as Elisa framed it.

The hope is that this level of cooperation and, indeed, simple contact between both sides, may lay the foundation for a more peaceful future where stalled conversations can move forward, and recently created relationships be maintained.

As Uniting Church members, I urge you to pray for the health of Israelis and Palestinians: Muslims, Christians and Jews. Remember particularly Elisa and Christina.  Pray continually, even after the Coronavirus crisis has passed, that the unprecedented cooperation at this time may lay the foundation for a lasting peace.


Rev Dr Rob McFarlane serves as Presbytery Ministry Leader in Parramatta Nepean Presbytery, and is a member of both Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Christian dialogue groups.