Creating a Culture of Understanding

by Breanne White and Brian Freedman, ICCI interns

Recently, members of the Christian-Jewish Seminarian Program on Israel and Palestine visited Israel and the West Bank for a 10-day tour to learn about theological and political perspectives in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, organized by ICCI’s Center for Interreligious Encounter with Israel. The program, which is co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee in New York and the Auburn Theological Seminary, was established in 2008 to bring together Rabbinic students and Christian seminarians in order to learn about each others’ communal, political, and theological perspectives on Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and the regional conflict.

The program included visits to religiously and politically significant sites in the Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Jaffa and included tours and lectures explaining different political, historical, and religious ideologies that affect Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

One of the activities included a tour of the Christian quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, a Sunday morning church service, and an introduction to the unique balance of theology and religious politics that allows so many holy sites to operate peacefully so close to each other. One thing that some visitors found particularly encouraging was the attitude of curiosity and respect displayed by the participants and the people they met. The congregation we met at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer was particularly welcoming, asking each visitor to stand up and introduce themselves after the church service and encouraging their members to meet the visitors.

A view of the Old City of Jerusalem, showing the close proximity of several churches, mosques, and other holy sites.

The description of the balance of power, politics, and worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was also fascinating. To think that for thousands of years a fragile territorial peace has mostly prevailed in a site considered holy by so many different Christian denominations is encouraging, although the clear demarcations of segregated space for the Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and other denominations which share the holy space can be somewhat shocking and foreign at first!

A lecture about the economic and water problems in the West Bank Sunday evening, coupled with a tour of the Aida refugee camp, a section of the separation wall, and other activities in Bethlehem introduced the group to some of the political realities of Israel and the West Bank. For those participants who were seeing the refugee camps and separation wall for the first time, the looming concrete wall, in such close proximity to several houses and covered with graffiti was shocking and sobering, if not a bit depressing.

However, a visit to the Sumud Story House and a passionate lecture on the work this NGO is doing to help bring a feeling of humanity and empowerment to the women living in the shadow of the wall was inspiring. It highlighted the importance of tolerance and understanding between people who hold differing religious and political ideologies. This was especially enlightening for the participants in the seminarian program, who will have a unique ability to educate their families, communities, and religious congregations about the political, religious, and cultural situation in Israel and the West Bank. The stories of hope and empowerment in the face of such opposition and hardship demonstrated the power that comes from mutual understanding and tolerance.

For example, a member of a Sumud women’s group, a woman in her early 70’s, wanted to do something to contribute to peace and understanding in the world. She told the group that she had many stones in her garden and wanted to bring them to Sumud. As they all worked together to paint the stones, which are often used for such an ugly, violent purpose, they were turned into a beautiful symbol of peace and hope.

Stories from the Sumud house lining the Separation Wall in Bethlehem

The group also stopped at ICCI’s Educational Center to hear from several alumni about their participation in some of ICCI’s dialogue groups. Tal, a Jewish woman who studies art therapy, shared her experience of traveling to Japan in 2008 with Palestinians to meet Japanese Buddhists and discuss issues of collective memory and reconciliation. She mentioned to ICCI’s guests that she became more aware of the importance of Palestinian identity among Israeli Arabs, or those Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship.

Saad, a Palestinian from Abu Ghosh and a student of music therapy, participated in the Face-to-Face/Faith-to-Faith program in 2004 , which the Auburn Theological Seminary co-sponsors with ICCI. He discussed with the U.S. seminarians his personal identity and the difficulty in reconciling his Israeli civic identity with his Palestinian national identity.

The seminarians toured Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl before finishing their trip exploring the different religious and political narratives in Jaffa. The program, itself a landmark effort to bring members of different religious groups together, is a wonderful beacon of hope to religious tolerance and understanding around the world, inspiring others to look past their differences and live together in harmony and peace.

* For more pictures and posts re this study tour, see the program’s blog.

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