This week, I had the pleasure of accompanying Timothy Dolan, cardinal-designate and current Archbishop of New York, during his unofficial pilgrim to the Holy Land. 50 priests belonging to the Archdiocese of New York also accompanied Dolan on the trip. Other than having the opportunity to become better acquainted with his priests, the retreat afforded Dolan some “R & R” (reflection and regeneration) ahead of his appointment in Rome to become Cardinal later in the month.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting many leaders—and many religious ones at that—but never have any been as kind—or as fun—as Archbishop Dolan. Despite the private nature of his pilgrimage, the Archbishop, who is sympathetic towards journalists since both his niece and his brother are in the profession, was only too glad to have me stalk him from holy site to holy site, snapping photos and persistently asking questions. 

I asked many important things, such his view on the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and many inane things, such as the difference between a red “yarmulke” and a purple one in clerical hierarchy. The Archbishop took no offence to any question I posed—in fact, he laughed heartily at my ignorance of Catholic terminology (the “yarmulke” is actually called a Zuchetto), and suggested that I join him for breakfast so that he might answer my questions in more depth. (Incidentally, breakfast at Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center consists of bacon and cheese, so I sufficed with the cups of coffee the Archbishop poured me.) 

The Archbishop—now a big fan of Maccabi beer (mostly due to its biblical name)—was enthused as he spoke of his joy at being in Israel - “the place where it all started.” And for my part, I learned a whole lot about Christianity – a religion I had hitherto believed I was fairly well-versed in. 

But here’s the point of this whole account: With every new thing that I learnt about the Archbishop’s world, my mind expanded just the teensiest bit and as a result, my prejudices, reservations and—I’ll admit it—my cynicism, also diminished a smidgen.

It seems obvious to most civilized people: Ignorance is the mother of conflict and educating ourselves about “the other” is key to building healthy societies et cetera et cetera.

But if it’s so obvious, then why is it not a primary focus—if not the primary focus—of our leaders, both spiritual and political?

Allow me to return to the Archbishop’s pilgrim for a moment: Last Monday the entourage visited Bethlehem, and after a visit to the Church of Nativity they took a tour of Bethlehem University – a Catholic institution that relies heavily on funds from the Church. 6 students, about half of whom were Muslims and the other half Christian, were selected to represent the university. The student body of Bethlehem university is about 70% Muslim and 30% Christian (I believe I was the only Jew on campus that day). In their address to us and in the Q & A session that followed, they delivered what I’ll term diplomatically as “their version of events” with poise and eloquence.

After a handful of yawnsome queries, one priest finally posed the question that everyone else in the auditorium was thinking but didn’t have the nerve to ask: What do you feel towards Israelis?

One student answered thus: “Hate is not the word but definitely not love. Dislike, perhaps. ” However, another student was quick to add that as Palestinians they have very limited interaction with Israelis. “They can’t come here and we can’t go there. We even need permission to go to the beach. So we don’t see them or talk to them.” Then another girl, the only one in the group to be wearing a hijab, piped up, “I see Israelis everyday at the border. I live in Jerusalem and it takes me 2-3 hours each way to get to school. They are rude and they humiliate us and they make us open our bags and show them all our personal belongings. I do not like them.”

I believe her. Israelis can be very rude—especially border police soldiers—and I for one hate having my bag checked. But that’s not the point. And before you think it, neither is “well-who’s-fault-is-that?” the point. In this conflict, the only person who can ever answer the question of “who suffers more” is someone with the dual identity of being both a Palestinian who has grown up as part of a minority dominated by an occupying majority and a Jew who has escaped persecution, exile and war to return to his national homeland.

I’ll let you know if I ever encounter such a person. In the meantime, all I can say with any qualification is that on both sides, the hapless victim always seems to be the moderate class.

I posed the following question to everyone on the panel, but it was directed mainly at Sana Abu Judeh - the girl from Jerusalem: Do you think it’s possible to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of religion - to seek out common ground from a God-centric angle?

Sana answered that she does not think of religion - or even Jews - when she thinks about Israelis. To her, the issue of religion is almost moot:  “They believe that they have a claim to Haram ash-Sharif [the Temple Mount], and we don’t.” Fair enough. But she didn’t really answer my question.

After the panel discussion, we went for lunch in the university’s on-campus hotel where we were joined by the Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury - who also happens to be on a visit to Israel. As luck would have it, I was seated next to Sana. You can imagine her surprise when she asked which country I’m from and I responded that I’m a fellow Jerusalemite.

Chatting to Sana was a bittersweet experience. She is humble, soft-spoken and has an aura of warmth about her; I immediately took a liking to her. Yet at the same time, it was painfully obvious that she, like so many others on both sides of this conflict, was plagued by wrongful assumptions about the other. 

I told her that back in my student days at Hebrew University I had made many Muslim friends – many of whom had altered my own preconceived notions about Islam. One in particular, who has remained a good friend ever since, had disclosed to me that despite being born and bred in Jerusalem, prior to meeting me she had never actually gotten to know a Jew. All she knew about her neighbors in this land was the negative image drawn for her by her community.

As Sana and I spoke, I think I saw her experience a little of same phenomenon that had occurred to me during my conversations with the Archbishop. The picture she had had in her head about who or what I was became ever-so-slightly blurred around the edges. After lunch she walked me back to the university’s parking lot, and just before I got into my car to leave Bethlehem we embraced for a short moment. 

A short moment that was pregnant with promise.

According to Menahem Froman, the rabbi of Tekoa, (a religious/secular settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc) one of his jobs as a religious leader is to try and connect with Muslim leaders on the one thing they have in common: Belief in God. While I’m not sure I condone all of Rabbi Froman’s practices (meeting with Hamas leaders being one of them), I certainly support his notion that Israel’s current diplomatic policies are clearly not working. He believes that a government that is secularly-oriented can never hope to achieve peace, simply because they’ll never truly understand the religious sensibilities of our neighbors.

Regardless of whether or not his attitude is correct, what is certain is that there is no chance of reconciliation unless we surrender our existing platitudes and actually get to know each other a little better – simply as fellow human beings to begin with.

We need more spiritual leaders like Archbishop Dolan and Rabbi Froman to help us communicate effectively. Inspirational people who are open-minded enough to imagine a world—and indeed, a Holy Land—that can accommodate different points of view and that can not only tolerate the existence of the other, but can also accept, understand, and  perhaps above all, trust the other.

Yet how can we understand the other if we can’t understand our own? The haredi-secular divide, which only seems to be deepening, causes me to despair at the prospect of ever making amends with our Muslim or Christian brothers.  But of course, that’s a topic for another column.

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