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I love them, but am too sad to return

04 June 2021

The Holy Land needs both wisdom and forgiveness, says Claire Henderson Davis

Claire Henderson Davis

The author in Israel in 1986-87

The author in Israel in 1986-87

WHEN I was 13 years old, in Montreal, a Jewish colleague of my father, at the university, asked whether I would babysit his three-year-old son. They lived around the corner from our house. The child’s mother had left, and his father was looking for a reliable and consistent babysitter. I said yes.

For ten years, I looked after this child one evening a week. When I was older, I sometimes stayed over if his father had to go away on a business trip. The father remarried, and his new wife had an older daughter whom I got to know as well, but the relationship was always between the boy and me.

I had to learn to operate in a kosher kitchen, and, on almost every visit, at least for the first few years, the child asked me whether I was Jewish. “No,” I replied. He went to a Jewish school, and his whole world was Jewish, except for me. He seemed amazed and excited to have a non-Jewish person in his life. I was honoured and moved to be that person.

Claire Henderson DavisPalestinian refugees, with portraits of their deceased sons

My father, who taught Philosophy of Religion at Concordia University, also had a Lebanese Ph.D. student. He had fled Lebanon during one of the many periods of conflict, settled in Montreal, and married a French Canadian woman. They owned a Lebanese restaurant. We were often invited to their house, welcomed with the detailed grace of Arab-speaking cultures, and royally fed on sumptuous Lebanese fare. I developed an early love for Middle-Eastern cuisine, before hummus had entered the mainstream.


IN 1985, when I was 15, I participated in the International Youth for Peace and Justice Tour. This was a project that brought teenagers from war zones around the world to Canada to speak with Canadian teenagers about their experiences.

A play about racism accompanied the tour, and I auditioned and got a part in the play. On the tour, I met an Israeli teenager who was about to begin his military service. My family were going to live in Jerusalem the following year, where my father would be doing research on religion and violence. I made a plan to meet up with my new Israeli friend when I got there.

We lived at Tantur, a research institute on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. At that time, it was on the Palestinian side of the West Bank, across the street from the Jewish settlement of Gilo. The academics at the institute were international, but the staff running things on a practical level were Palestinian.

We brought my already demented grandmother with us, and my parents hired a Palestinian woman to look after her. She also occasionally cooked for us — I remember her stuffed vine leaves with great longing.

The staff at the institute told my parents that they should not allow me out alone, but I was determined not to be hemmed in. I was taking a year out of school, and meant to live it to the full.Claire Henderson DavisYoung Israeli soldiers

I got a volunteer position in a mother-and-baby clinic in East Jerusalem, started by descendants of the Spaffords, who founded the American Colony Hotel. I took the Palestinian bus into the city every day, and learned enough spoken Arabic to tell the men and boys who bothered me to get lost. I also joined an Israeli folk-dancing group in Gilo.

My mother had recently finished an MA in Comparative Religion, looking at Judaism and Christianity. She arrived in Jerusalem feeling strongly pro-Israeli. My father had another Ph.D. student who was studying with him in Montreal, but whose family, to whom he frequently returned, lived on an Orthodox Jewish kibbutz in Israel.

We went to visit them, and I was fascinated that, in the common dining area, you could serve yourself fresh orange juice from a tap. I remember my mother asking a woman there: “What do you think of the Palestinians?” “I hate them,” the woman replied. “Have you ever met a Palestinian?” my mother continued. “No,” the woman said.

At some point during the year, the Christian theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether arrived, with her husband, Herman Reuther, a political scientist with expertise on Islam. They had been friends of my parents for years, and I had known them all my life.

Claire Henderson DavisYoung Israeli soldiers

Rosemary had written an extremely successful book on the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, Faith and Fratricide. She wrote primarily to enlighten and shame her fellow Christians, but found, instead, that she was being invited to speak mainly to Jewish audiences.

Through her husband, she maintained an active interest in the Middle East, and wrote a piece on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Immediately, her Jewish gigs were cancelled. Determined not to bow to this kind of pressure, she had come to Jerusalem to do further research and to write a book with Herman, later published under the title The Wrath of Jonah: The crisis of religious nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She had set up all kinds of meetings, and agreed to take me with her. We went down into Gaza, travelled through Khan Younis refugee camp, and had our camera film confiscated by the Israeli army, who surrounded our UN vehicle. I remember meeting a married 14-year-old girl who was already visibly pregnant, and being forcefully struck by the difference in our two lives.

I sat in on Rosemary’s talks with Hanan Ashrawi, and went with her up to Galilee to visit Elias Chacour, the Palestinian who had written a personal memoir of the conflict, Blood Brothers.

I also travelled down to Ein Gedi to visit my Israeli friend, on a break from his army service, and we went walking in the hills overlooking the Dead Sea. He came to visit me at Tantur, wearing his army uniform and carrying his gun in full view of the Palestinian staff. We spent a sleepless night, afraid that he would be kidnapped by the PLO.

On Yom Kippur, I walked into Jerusalem, wearing very impractical plastic sandals, and developed a terrible blister. While seated on the side of the road, unable to carry on, I was offered a plaster by two Hasidic Jewish men who stopped to help me.


I HAVE never returned to Israel-Palestine. I feel too sad to go back. I love the land and both its peoples.

The child of the 14-year-old girl I met in Khan Younis, if they survived, would now be 35 years old. They were not alive during the Second World War. They were not alive when the Balfour Declaration was made. They were had not been born when the State of Israel was founded, or the Six-Day War broke out.

The children of Israel and Palestine born during that year of 1986 were not alive during any of the constitutive events of this conflict, and yet they must live every day with its consequences.

People of Solomon, what will you do? Will you cut the baby in half, or choose life?

The former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Lord Sacks, writes in his magnificent book The Dignity of Difference: “The prophets, who lived and worked more than 2500 years ago, were the world’s first social critics, unashamed to deliver their message to kings and speak truth to power.

“Religion has, they argued, a moral, social and economic dimension. It involves justice, not merely in the narrow sense of the rule of law and the transparency of procedures, but also in the substantive sense of conferring on all members of society an honoured place. . .

“No religion can propose precise policies for the alleviation of hunger and disease. What it can do, and must, is to inspire us collectively with a vision of human solidarity and with concepts, such as tzedakah within the Jewish tradition and its counterparts in other faiths, that serve as a broad moral template for what constitutes a fair and decent world.”

But justice alone is not enough, Lord Sacks writes. To be complete, justice needs forgiveness. “Justice takes the sense of wrong and transforms it from personal retaliation — revenge — to the impersonal processes of law — retribution. Forgiveness is the further acknowledgment that justice alone may not be enough to silence the feelings of the afflicted.”

Claire Henderson DavisIn front of the sign for the Tantur Institute

He continues: “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean abandoning the claims of justice. It does mean, however, an acknowledgment that the past is past and must not be allowed to cast its shadow over the future. Forgiveness heals moral wounds the way the body heals physical wounds.

“At its height it is a process of shared mourning between those who commit and those who suffer the consequences of wrong; the former for harm done, the latter for harm suffered — and like all acts of mourning it is the only bridge from the pain of loss to reintegration with the present and its task.”


WHO needs to forgive whom in this conflict? The list seems endless. There has been so much wrong done by so many, so much suffering, so much injustice on all sides. What can be said except to echo the words of the Prophet Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem: “Behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. . .”

In the midst of this conflict, however, peace is on everyone’s lips. The longing for peace is repeatedly expressed in the everyday greetings of Arabic and Hebrew speakers alike:

As-salamu alaykum


Peace be with you.

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