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Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

02 August 2019

Humphrey Southern finds grounds for hope in a recent visit to the Holy Land

Rob Thompson

Pupils’ art work at the Hand in Hand school, Jerusalem

Pupils’ art work at the Hand in Hand school, Jerusalem

“JERUSALEM Syndrome” is apparently a recognised condition. The city can affect people and behaviour in surprising ways. The archaeologist who told us this described her own encounter with an apparently sane and calm individual, with red hair and a lyre, who insisted that he was King David — although their meeting took place at David’s alleged tomb.

The “we” who heard this story — and many others, much more significant and disturbing — were a group of Christian and Jewish leaders on a study tour in and around Jerusalem, organised by the Council of Christians and Jews. A priority for me on previous visits, as for many Christians who visit the Holy Land, has been to experience it through Christian eyes, chiefly those of contemporary, indigenous Christians. This has shaped my perceptions in a very distinct way, and given me privileged access to one particular (and important) narrative.

IT IS a harrowing narrative of pain and dispossession, but — powerful as it is — it is not the only one in today’s Holy Land, as became very clear to us on this visit. Again and again, as we met different groups and individuals — Palestinians, Israeli Jews and Arabs, Jewish settlers in illegal settlements, PLO officials, peace activists, Israeli Defense Force personnel, and politicians and commentators of every stripe — we were presented with different, competing narratives.

These stories are contradictory and irreconcilable; yet they are all, in an important sense, true. They are true because they are believed by — “real” to — the groups and individuals who narrate them, and whose lives and outlooks are shaped by them. There are narratives about motives (“ours” and “theirs”), about promises made and betrayed, outrages remembered, and grievances that cannot be let go.

On all sides there is a commitment to the Land which is about far more than simple proprietorship. The legal, political, and moral arguments may focus on who has title or possession, but much deeper are the searching questions of identity and belonging — not “whom the land belongs to”, but “who belongs to the land”. These are theological and spiritual questions; questions about identity and belief; about how individuals and nations understand, and give account of, themselves before God.

IN THESE circumstances, the prospects of a solution to the political conundrum that is Israel-Palestine — and, with it, the prospects of lasting, reliable peace — are distressingly distant. Indeed, the message from almost everyone we spoke to, whatever their loyalty or overarching story, was that peace was as remote as ever, and considerably more so than it had been at the turn of this century.

Worse, the very principles of democracy seem ill-equipped to serve a more hopeful future. Who are the majority and who are the minority? It depends on the perspective that you take: in the context of the surrounding Arab nations (not to mention a world in which anti-Semitism is horribly prevalent), the Jewish State of Israel feels small and vulnerable.

Within Israel (even before the vexed issue of borders and territories is addressed), Arabs have become a minority population where once they were the undisputed majority. Christians are a minority of this minority (and Anglicans a tiny subset of that group). The West Bank is disputed between the Palestinian majority and a growing minority of Jewish settlers, drawn by their historic attachment to the land.

Even within the various communities, democratic processes are in crisis. The way in which proportional representation works in the Israeli system privileges minority extremist religious groups, giving them power unmerited by their numbers. President Mahmoud Abbas, of the Palestinian Authority (PA), is in the 11th year of a four-year term of office, largely because of the obvious (though unacknowledged) reality that the alternative would be a takeover of the PA and the West Bank by the terrorist group Hamas, as has happened so disastrously in Gaza.

THIS is the reality that our mixed group — lay people, rabbis, and ministers from a variety of traditions of British Judaism and Christianity — encountered as we travelled together. Unsurprisingly, no easy solutions or consensus emerged among us. As was pointed out, if they existed, they would have been found long since.

But we were not devoid of hope. In our shared reflections we reconnected with our own humanity — often experienced in horror and frustration and misery — and together glimpsed tiny shafts of promise, almost all of them stemming from bottom-up community initiatives rather than political programmes or pundits’ solutions.

We met young Israelis who had completed their compulsory National Service in the Israeli Defence Force, and were committed both to supporting others who had been traumatised by the experience, and to understanding better the lives and reality of Palestinians and Arabs whom they had been conditioned to think of simply as potential terrorists.

We were introduced to the work of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which exist to promote the better integration into Israeli civic and political life of Arab citizens of the State, currently marginalised in the structures. And we met members of “Roots”, a network of Orthodox Jews from settler communities and Palestinians whose land has been taken over by some of those settlements: two groups, in obvious competition with each other, yet learning to exchange stories about the attachment that binds each so powerfully to the Land. In circumstances of agonising dispossession and fear, they are learning to converse, to respect, and even to begin to empathise.

PERHAPS most movingly of all, on what was the last day of term (attended by all the excitement and chaos that might be expected), we visited the Hand in Hand School — the only place in Jerusalem where Jewish and Arab children learn together. They are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic; teachers as well as students come from both communities; and the curriculum is multicultural. Vitally, both history and religion are explored from a range of standpoints. No one story or version dominates.

The school is set in fiercely disputed areas, and draws its children from deeply divided and mutually hostile communities. Yet in a city where security is prominent and anxiety is prevalent, the school is open and largely undefended. It has been attacked, politically and physically, by both sides; yet its waiting list is long, and the network of similar schools which it has initiated is growing.

In the very midst of the conflict, Hand in Hand offers an alternative to the narrative of antagonism, fear, and violence which has become so familiar and endemic in the city that is named for peace.

THESE small and fragile initiatives — so provisional and easily compromised in the context of fear, anger, and mutually exclusive narratives — are where stories are being heard across the divides and — which brings even more hope — the places where new and shared narratives are being written and uncovered.

These are the pinpricks of light in the darkness for which we should pray the blessings of the one true God of all peace and justice.

The Rt Revd Humphrey Southern is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

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