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June 26, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Toward a Shared and Prosperous Future…

I have never thought of myself as religious. But as we approached the Western Wall, I think I felt a bit of what I have heard religion feels like: faith. I felt faith that everything would work out in the end, even in this troubled region. As I walked forward with the other girls in our group, the gravity of what we were doing struck me. I was approaching the Kotel with a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. And what’s more, they were all being open and respectful! Now, these were girls who I had spent every waking moment with for the past week; already I loved and felt close with them. Their religion is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of them and reflect on how much I enjoyed their company. But Aya is definitely a Muslim, Erin a Christian, Briana and I Jews. We come from different faiths and different backgrounds. This has been made exceedingly clear to me now that I am back home in Cleveland, surrounded by my Jewish community and reminded of the loyalties that they hold and that, as I Jew, I am expected to hold as well. Being back home has reinforced how groundbreaking and important our trip to the Middle East was. Traveling with kids from many religions, stopping in both Saudi Arabia and Israel, and visiting holy sites from each of the three major Abrahamic faiths together as friends is something that very few people have the chance to do.

Our first night in Jerusalem was peaceful but heavy. Everything is so geographically close here. In this tiny city, so many traditions overlap and contradict one another. As we stared over the Western Wall, listening to church bells in the distance, the Muslim call to prayer struck up, echoing through the fading light from the multiple minarets around us. It was a powerful moment that really made me hope for a solution that includes Jerusalem as a bi-national or independently governed religious district, preserving the ability of all those who wish to pray there to do so with freedom and security.

The next day, we toured the Old City, including the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount. It was a gorgeous day. Interestingly, as Dr. David pointed out, we were standing on what is probably the world’s most contentious piece of land and yet all we could hear were birds chirping. Our guide Ophir countered, however, that just last Friday there were riots here. When Erin asked if it was all right to sit on a large raised stone platform in the middle of the courtyard, Ophir advised against it, as it was an outdoor mosque where people prayed. Minutes later, one of the Israeli soldiers standing near our group sat down on the mosque, and I couldn’t help but bristle a bit. I know that most likely, the soldier had no idea what he was doing, and that he meant no harm. But it felt disrespectful to me.

After the Old City, the group visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust. I was again reminded of how much I love our group when, afterwards, we struck up a conversation in the lobby of the museum, about Arabs in the Israeli army and whether or not Zionism supports settlements. Our group was never afraid to get down and dirty with the issues we were learning about, no matter the time or place. Our dialogue continued that afternoon with Rabbi Kronish and some of his Israeli and Palestinian students at his organization, The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. As we ate dinner with them and got into a heated conversation about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I was reminded of something that we heard at the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue in Riyadh. A bit cynically, we heard that, ‘dialogue between youth will not solve the problems, politicians who get in power will solve them.’ But Erin’s response to his statement also came to mind. She said that we, the youth, ARE the world’s future politicians, and thus dialogue is invaluable. After that night at the Kronish’s, as difficult as it was to remain calm at points, I could not agree more.

Bethlehem and Efrat were on the agenda for the next day – two extraordinarily contested areas. We had no trouble at the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank; although we heard differently from one of the Palestinian guys we had met, who complained that his thirty-minute trip to meet with us had taken upwards of two and a half hours due to security. In Bethlehem, we met with the Arab Educational Institute. Our host was a passionate Dutch man who had married a Palestinian woman and now worked with children in the West Bank. I am glad I got to visit the Church of the Nativity and was astounded at how many different Christian sects were sharing the space. I am also glad I got to see the wall at Rachel’s tomb. Called a “security fence” by some and a “separation barrier” by others, it is unsightly and felt very oppressive.

What we heard form Palestinians in the West Bank was a narrative that was to be strongly contradicted during a strategic tour of Jerusalem led by a well-known Israeli professor. As an example, both sides relayed the same story of Israeli soldiers coming through the wall’s gate in the middle of the night, snatching up some Palestinians, and leaving again. The interesting part was that while Palestinians told the story as a woeful lament to how rarely Israelis interact with them save for security missions, and of how oppressed the Palestinian people are, the Israeli professor told the same story as a proud example of how tight and effective Israeli security is. I thought back to our meeting with at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC at the very beginning of our trip. One of the things I heard during that meeting was that the Palestinians have to mature before the peace process continues. The Palestinian narrative, however, said basically the opposite: it was the Israelis who have to grow up. In a sense, both sides are very right, and I am left very confused. Good thing King Shwarma, the greatest food in all of Jerusalem, was around to pick our spirits up.

The next day was our last full day of programming. In the morning we visited Masada and learned that many considered the Zealots, the group of Jews who used the mountain’s natural fortress to fend off the Roman army years ago, to be terrorists. Dr. David reminded us that every religion has its extremists. After a quick dip in the Dead Sea, we bus-napped our way to Tel Aviv for a visit to the Interdisciplinary Center Herzilya, a university that boasts classes in English and students from all over the world. We met with Dr. Dalia Fadila who I can safely say inspired us all with the story of her struggle to lead a board of ten men as the president of Al-Qasemi Academy, an Arab college in Israel. Dr. Fadila spoke of the need for Israeli-Arabs to develop their own tradition within modernity and Israel. By strengthening their community, she argued, Israeli-Arabs could better contribute to Israeli society and could form bridges between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including a potential Palestinian state. Next we heard from Dr. Issac Berzin, an Israeli scientist who did business with his Palestinian business partner in both Israel and Jordan. “If you want to leave peace to the politicians,” he said, “good luck to all of us.”

Both Dr. Fadila and Dr. Berzin emphasized the importance of going further than just dialogue. In Dr. Fadila’s opinion, the current dialogue efforts are not working because people just eat together, share and talk about their values, and then leave with the same stereotypes they held upon entering. A more effective strategy, Dr. Berzin echoed, was to work towards building something together, separate from religion or politics. The bio-algae product he is marketing brings together Arabs and Israelis and is a prime example of this. While dialogue is important, interacting through the lens of business or science can often produce more constructive connections.

This trip was not always easy, which is part of what touched me at the Kotel. My struggle has come primarily upon returning to the States, trying to explain my feelings about the Middle East to my family. But other members of the group struggled daily in Israel. I could see how difficult it was for Aya to stomach some of the things she heard while we were in the Holy Land. But she listened respectfully, and she did so with an open mind and heart. I had never imagined that I would go to Saudi Arabia, she had never imagined that she would visit Israel. Seeing her be so open even through tough conversations really moved me, as did the fact that she joined me in praying at the Kotel.

One of the major concerns we encountered from both Israeli and Palestinian youth we met was their worry that engaging with another’s narrative, be it religious or political, means betraying your own. In my opinion, This cannot be further from the truth. If peace is to be achieved, each side must work hard to recognize that other valid viewpoints do exist, even if one does not agree with them. I think that the positive attitudes toward inter-cultural exploration and action I experienced on the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project are integral to achieving peace in the region. I can only hope that, with the help of our small impact plans and the work of leaders in the region, these attitudes continue to flourish and grow.

-Hannah Elson

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