The Sulha Way could lead ahead

02 November 2006

A peace festival in Israel gathers up varied reconciliation projects, reports John Sumner

if Peace comes in the Holy Land which is a real peace, it will owe a debt to the Sulha Way festivals. "Sulha" is a traditional Arab ceremony marking the end of tribal hostilities.

Grassroots reconciliation projects in Israel/Palestine number more than 200. They may be small, confidential meetings where Arab and Jewish individuals achieve depths of understanding. They may be co-operatives: for example, "Mosaic Communities" sets out to provide multi-ethnic housing for disadvantaged minorities.

Yet these singular and disparate endeavours, while weathering the heat of every day, do not always have comprehensiveness and wide appeal. That role is being taken on by the festivals.

The concept is simple: a place in the open air where anyone can be serious or have fun with "the other side" — a place where human beings can befriend each other. Gabriel Meyer drove this concept, starting in 2001 with a team of dedicated friends and attracting more than 150 participants.

At first, Arab participation was limited to those living in Israel as citizens, and those coming from Jordan. Each year showed significant development, with numbers now rising above 3000 and an efficient organisation of free meals and accommodation. But it is the past two years that have brought new depth and recognition.

Gabriel Meyer, with his guitar and coat of many colours, attracted the young and the young-at-heart. Detractors thought the early festivals were simply gatherings of rainbow people or hippies. But the detractors were not seeing the commitment of the organisers, people such as Eliyahu McLean, Souliman Khatib, Azriel Cohen and Ibrahim El Hawa.

For example, Eliyahu McLean leads Friday prayer overlooking the Temple Mount, and is usually joined by Muslims emerging from the mosque. He invites visitors from all backgrounds (including unconvinced neighbours) to his home for end-of-shabbat meals, and travels widely, speaking and befriending.

People of this experience and calibre do not imagine that the depth of the 200 peace initiatives can be emulated in a short festival. But they know that for many participants, person-to-person encounters and group sharings are the first opportunities for hearing the feelings of "the others" at first hand, and their first opportunities of speaking out what they have held inside for years.

Sulha Way is a vibrant taster of what can happen. Among its participants are rabbis, sheikhs, and monks; parents and teenagers; committed activists and the half-interested; T-shirts and ties. Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, embrace, talk, grieve, and hope together.

The first West Bank delegation came in 2004, led by Firas Yaghi, who is now director-general of the Palestinian Electoral Commission. This year it numbered 200 — it was a huge achievement to get permission for so many. Palestinians from Jordan added a further 70. A Gaza delegation was refused permission because of the Israeli withdrawal.

Mornings and afternoons are given over to listening circles and to workshops. Invited guests from other countries — Northern Ireland, South Africa, Tibet, Senegal — contribute from their hard experiences of striving for peace. Their everyday presence and short speeches leave profound impressions.

I found in my listening circles two women who ran Arab-Jewish kindergartens and yet did not know each other; a man leading an Arab-Jewish commune; and a doctor studying the effects of the country’s trauma on disease. Afternoon workshops include the Bereaved Parents Circle, sharing stories of grief, compassion, and hope from both sides. Evenings bring an influx of young people just for the concert. But the underlying message is still there.

gently, the festival inches into more difficult territory. Rabbi Arik Ascherman Rabbis for Human Rights tells of how soldiers chained him to a military jeep when he pointed out that what they were doing to a Palestinian teenager was illegal. I was later questioned closely at Tel Aviv airport because I had collected some of his literature. But the Sulha is careful to keep at a distance the more aggressive "peace activists".

This year, Sulha Way has grasped a new nettle, the belief that "there will be no political settlement in the Holy Land without the realm of spirit." To achieve peace together requires prayer together.

The night’s music on the main stage has always been introduced by prayers from each faith tradition. Prayer has been approached gently at the festival. Initially, it was separate prayers in a shared space. A House of Prayer is made of cloth slung between trees, open to the skies. In its centre is a round table bearing the Qur’an, the Law and Prophets and Writings, and the New Testament. Now the aim is shared prayer.

Christian involvement, though numerically small, is now significant. Contributions have come from Galilee, from the Community of the Beatitudes in Emmaus, from Nigeria, and from the Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the festival is to re-engender hope. The organisers intend that the event will rise to a point where both public opinion and the policy-makers will take notice.

Emotional and intense, but replete with colour, music, and laughter, Sulha is a way of affecting the attitudes of the upcoming generation. "Now I have met these younger people, I have started to hope again," said an older Israeli.

"Thank you for coming," said the girl on the information desk unaffectedly. "We cannot do this on our own."

The Revd John Sumner is the former leader of the Quest Community in Glastonbury.

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