Scottish Council of Jewish Communites
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities
 
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities

Scottish Interfaith Pilgrimage - diary
 
 
 

Itinerary: Tuesday 8 July

   
am
 
Bethlehem
       

Church of the Nativity

Meet Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust
(a Palestinian non-violent resistance movement)

       
Hebron
       

walking tour with the Ecumenical Accompaniment
Programme in Israel and Palestine

visit David Wilder, Hebron Settler movement spokesman

visit Hashem al-Azzeh, Palestinian spokesman

Tomb of Patriarchs

 
pm
 
Jerusalem - Knesset
       

meet Minister Isaac Herzog, Minister for Diaspora Affairs, and
MK Rabbi Michael Melchior

 

eve

 
Panel of Faith Leaders:
       

Sheikh Izhak Taha, Deputy Mufti of Jerusalem

Rabbi Avraham Smadja

Chief Rabbi of Ramat Shlomo

Bishop Aris Shirvanian, Armenian Partiarchate

Canon Robert Edmunds (Anglican)

Reverend Shahadi Bernard Sabella, Member of the Palestinian Parliament

 

Fiona and Howard Brodie
It was a fully packed day; a day of contrasts and mixed emotions; a day with so much to see and so little time to make sense of it all.

For us it began with a feeling of apprehension – both about our safety and about what we would see and hear on the other side of Israel’s security barrier in that most controversial of areas – the West Bank.

Our first destination was Bethlehem where, of course, we crossed Manger Square (we were surprised at how modern it is, perhaps ridiculously) to the venerable Church of the Nativity. Having queued for a chance to descend to the crypt where Jesus is said to have been born, we missed the brief opportunity to look around the nearby Centre for Peace but our next stop gave us the chance to consider practical steps that can be taken towards peace.

Meeting with Sami Awad

The Holy Land Trust was founded by Palestinian Sami Awad. Despite growing up in the hostile environment of the occupied territories, he was moved by family influences to set up an organisation that promotes non-violence both as a principle and as a practical strategy. Training in non-violent tactics is provided to groups of all ages across Palestine including, to our utter astonishment, members of Fatah and Hamas. A programme of leadership training is also being planned to prepare for a sustainable future for the Palestinian community – the Trust is not afraid to confront the issues of apathy, victimhood and corruption which afflict their society now and certainly don’t bode well for future statehood.

We were moved to hear that Sami had even chosen to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in pursuit of his belief that empathy is an essential element in reaching understanding between conflicting parties. The Palestinian response to the Holocaust is generally to question what it has to do with them, we are told. We were also told that Israeli schoolchildren visiting the camps are informed:”It’s not over yet. This is what the Arabs will do”. It’s clear that mindsets have to change on both sides of the divide.

Pramila Kaur
Whist the Holy Land Trust seemed to be an example of good practice, some of us expressed concern about their use of language such as 'ethnic cleansing', and it was felt this was not conducive  to bridging the gap. On the positive side, however, the Trust is forward thinking and is currently drafting strategies on sustaining  peace  at the end of the 'occupation', seeking to help people overcome a 'victim' mentality and start becoming proactive in the peace movement, combining intellectual capital with religious and cultural background to effect change.
With lunch on the hop, we travelled on to Hebron.

Hebron

Fiona and Howard Brodie
The group had been surprised by how normal everything looked so far – no signs of warfare, no piles of rubble – but that all changed in Hebron. The street of Shuhada is the most contested road in the West Bank. Once it was a vibrant trading centre, lined with shops but what we found was a ghost street, lined with closed shops, barbed wire and blocked roads. The only people to be seen were young Israeli soldiers (we imagined, with a shudder, our twenty year old sons, armed and nervous in this eerie wasteland) and an occasional car driven by Jewish settlers. Palestinians are not allowed to be in this street.

As we walked on towards the settlers’ area (the Hebron settlers are the only ones to be living in the midst of a Palestinian town, rather than on the outskirts or in open countryside - hence the particular tensions) we came across a solitary group of Jewish boys playing in the street. It was incongruous and unsettling. It’s not the kind of playground in which we would voluntarily have placed our children. To hear a little about what motivates the Jewish settlers to raise their families here, we met their spokesman David Wilder.

Moshe Rubin
What shook me to my core was the hate that has developed between communities since my last visit to Hebron 33 years ago when i was 7 years old. Then we visited the holy sites without any fear, and strolled through the Arab Shuk, buying and haggling, smiling and bantering with all the sellers. The leader of the Hebron Settlers movement was frank and honest about his view of the situation, but he also came across as a person who is ready to continue living permanently in a situation of hating his neighbours. As much as we tried to coax out of him a positive message for the future, he could only see conflict. What bothered me most was that outside his door were playing beautiful children full of fun and life, and he could not see that it is important to find a way of coexisting for their sake.

Fiona and Howard Brodie
Hebron is one of the most ancient of Jewish settlements dating back 4000 years since Abraham, whose tomb is here. Until 1967, for 700 years, Jews had no access to the Patriarch’s tomb and Wilder’s principal justification of his community’s presence seemed to be that they are defending the right of Jews to visit one of their faith’s holiest sites.

Tomb of the Patriarchs

He also dwelt on the massacre of 1929 and the resultant lack of a Jewish presence, something the settlers felt the need to redress although none of them are related to the pre 1929 inhabitants. The unspoken assumption is that the settlers are acting on behalf of the greater Jewish “family”.  Dave Wilder admitted that their situation was unsustainable without military protection and that the settlers have little interaction with their Palestinian neighbours other than hostility. He was less aggressive than we had expected, speaking in even tones throughout, and we could almost have been persuaded by the reasonableness of their cause were it not for the intransigence that bubbled to the surface when Wilder declared that he believed in a two state solution – Israel should have one state and the Palestinians could have another wherever they chose to go.

Of course, his Palestinian neighbours are going nowhere. One of those staying put in his family home, perched on a hillside immediately below a Jewish settler neighbourhood, welcomed our group. The original entrance to his land is now blocked off so we followed an uneven dusty path over waste ground to gather in his garden and hear a brief outline of his side of the Hebron story. It made for uncomfortable listening, of course. He spoke of the difficulties in having no vehicular access to his property. He pointed out the rubbish littering the ground, thrown down from those above, along with stones aimed at his property. He drew attention to established vines and olive trees that had been cut down and talked of physical attacks and threats of violence to his family.  He also spoke of a “one state solution”, the return of 6 million Palestinians to live in a Utopian Palestinian state where peoples of all faiths can live in perfect harmony.

Pramila Kaur
The meeting with the Jewish settler generated mixed feelings from frustration about his use  of inappropriate and inflammatory language, to respect for him being open and honest about his reality of living in a settlement in the West Bank. The Palestinian spokesman talked about the constant harassment he was subject to by his Jewish neighbours, and about the lack of basic facilities such as a telephone, use of a car in 'occupied areas. Both sides conveyed negative views of the current situation in Hebron, but both were in disagreement regarding the way forward to resolving the conflict.

Our guides from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) told us that living conditions for Palestinians in are very poor, and that the situation is tense and relations difficult. An army presence was visible at all times during our visit to Hebron.

Fiona and Howard Brodie
Our schedule demanded that we speedily move on, reeling a little from what we had just heard, to the tomb of Abraham. Even here there is a divide – one entrance for Muslims, one entrance for Jews. The members of other faiths in our group distributed themselves evenly amongst the two. We could just about hear and see each other through the partition and we took turns to say prayers for peace and reconciliation through the bars, before climbing back on the bus and heading to Jerusalem for a meeting with two Israeli cabinet ministers at the Knesset.

Isaac Herzog, Minister for Social Services and the Diaspora, greeted us with courtesy and immediately established a connection when he spoke of his mother who came from Glasgow. He was keen to mention an Israeli hospital which gives heart surgery to children from all over the world, including Iraqis, in support of his position that the Jewish people are not biased against Arabs. In fact, he sees no reason why Israel cannot resolve its difficulties with Palestine but his pragmatism was tinged with cynicism - he does not rule out the use of force to impose a resolution since military withdrawals in the past have not led the two sides any closer to peace.

Rabbi Melchior left us with greater feelings of hope. He is a man of many parts – he has a congregation in Jerusalem, is Chief Rabbi of Norway, a member of a left wing orthodox party and the Chair of the Knesset Committee for Education, Culture and Sport. Prior to the murder of Prime Minister Rabin, Rabbi Melchior devoted much of his time to travelling the world as a Jewish educator but he was so shocked by the implications for Israeli society of a Jew murdering his own leader in the name of religion that he decided to devote his life instead to actively promoting moral values through direct involvement in politics. His focus is on combating indifference, intolerance and injustice not only with his work in the Knesset but through close involvement with the Elie Wiesel Foundation and various human rights, immigration, educational and interfaith organisations. We all felt uplifted by the warmth and sincerity of his personality.

An already hyperactive day of meetings was not over yet. In the evening we welcomed six religious leaders based in Jerusalem.

Pramila Kaur
Whilst all are engaged in inter faith work for the benefit of peace, our presence had been the catalyst for some to meet for the first time, and they called for peace in the Middle East, and spoke about the importance of inter faith work to effect positive change in the region.

Fiona and Howard Brodie
The first person to speak was the Deputy Mufti of Jerusalem. He stressed that social interaction could help alleviate the current political situation. He said that before 1948, Jerusalem was a free city for Jews, Muslims and Christians. He illustrated this by telling us that his grandmother breastfed a Jewish neighbour’s baby. After Israel independence, the Mufti’s uncle went abroad to study, and when he tried to come back, he was not allowed to re-enter the country unless he could demonstrate his family had done some good for the Jewish people. When he told the story of his mother, and it was authenticated, he was allowed to return!

The next speaker was the Armenian archbishop of Jerusalem. The Armenian Christians are the most ancient of Christians in Jerusalem, having been there since the 1st Century. He emphasized the importance of education. He is soon to meet with Palestinian and Israeli education ministers to review educational materials with the aim of removing from textbooks all negative references to each other’s culture. This seems to us an admirable and encouraging initiative. He has met with Condoleezza Rice and is on a high level Interfaith Council with Christian Patriarchs and the Chief Rabbi.

Panel of Faith Leaders

Of the two Anglican ministers at the meeting, representing the Diocese of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan, the first was responsible for setting up Israeli, Palestinian and Christian Kids for Peace - groups of 24 children of 3 faiths sent to the USA where they have the opportunity simply to interact on a personal basis. He wants larger groups to meet and emphasised the need for education for peace. The second Anglican was responsible for running two hospitals in the Palestinian Territories.

Also present was a Christian member of the Palestinian parliament. He challenged the Israeli policy of separation, asking whether, if Jewish and Palestinian children can never mix, what hope is there for peace? He insisted that it is the duty of religious leaders to push the politicians to make peace. He also mentioned that President Sarcozy of France, a staunch friend of Israel, told the Knesset on a visit only last week that Jerusalem cannot and must not be divided.

The Orthodox rabbi was fairly optimistic. He talked of a groundswell of opinion that it is the role of religion to achieve peace in the region. He also agreed that religious leaders must have a central place in the peace process. He quoted the great Jewish Sage Maimonedes, who said that the three Abrahamic Faiths all have a place in bringing redemption, and stressed the value of ‘kavod’- honour, dignity and respect - which is shared by all three religions.

We were justifiably proud to note that it was the first time that all these religious leaders had met in the same room at the same time. They came together because of their interest in our multi faith pilgrimage and told us of how inspired and encouraged they were to find representatives of seven religions all travelling and learning together.

We have found it very difficult to process all that we saw and heard. Apart from an overload of information, we were all physically and mentally exhausted by the end of the day. It was the toughest day of the week. Do we feel that we have gained any perspective? Yes, to some extent, but it may take weeks, if not months, to fully evaluate it all. Overall, it’s been fantastic to discover so many people all prepared to give of their time in the pursuit of mutual understanding. We have been encouraged by the willingness for dialogue on all sides and the obvious cohesion and camaraderie of our group have apparently intrigued and encouraged all those that we have encountered along our pilgrims’ way. On a very personal level, bridging the divide in our own faith community, between the orthodox and the progressive movements, has been as important to us as the interfaith discourse. To have any hope of engaging meaningfully with the rest of the world we must surely work towards healing the divisions within our own faith community – and we do have hope!

Fiona Brodie is Treasurer of the Scottish Jewish Archives Committee, Co-Senior Warden and Executive member of Glasgow Reform Synagogue, past Chair of Limmud Scotland, and past Hon Secretary of Glasgow Jewish Representative Council.

Howard Brodie is Co-Senior Warden and an Executive member of Glasgow Reform Synagogue, and member of Limmud Scotland, and of the Scottish Jewish Archives Committee.

Pramila Kaur is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Inter-Faith Council. She is Sikh.

Moshe Rubin is Rabbi of Giffnock Synagogue in Glasgow; Senior Rabbi in Scotland, and member of the Religious Leaders Meeting.

 

   
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