Efrat settlement, West Bank.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Each and every day for the course of my lifetime (some 60 years as the crow flies), I have witnessed a battle over the contours and ownership of the Holy Land. Some years ago I stood on a hill that is part of the settlement of Tekoa and listened as Rabbi Menachem Froman described it all as God’s land. He went on to say that that was why Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin always reminded him that they, religious leaders, could settle the conflict in five minutes.
Well not every religious leader sees the world as Rabbi Froman or Sheikh Yassin did. And though they found a unique common ground, two peoples (and I have been challenged even for calling them “two ancient peoples”) have fought and are fighting to this very day over every square inch (I should say centimeter) of this sacred soil.
It is easy to get caught by the meaning and interpretation of words. What does a united Jerusalem mean to Israelis and Jews around the world? What does the same phrase mean to the Palestinian inhabitants of east Jerusalem? Where are the borders? Where were the borders in January 1967? Where were the borders in January 1950? And where were the borders in January 1930? And what of access to the Old City, the Western Wall and Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount? Then there was the construction of the so-called “Security Fence” and the new plan of MK Isaac Herzog to extend it in this calamitous time?
What happens when I put the Arabic “Haram” before the Jewish Temple or even include the Arabic at all? How do two ancient peoples resolve a conflict that has been part of their lives from before the day of their birth when they cannot even find a common understanding of reality? Maybe because there are two peoples with two distinct but interconnected histories. Maybe because neither side in the conflict is willing or able to acknowledge let alone accept the other story, the other truth that has befallen those other people. How does one welcome the independence of one without recognizing the catastrophe of the other?
And how does the other not recognize the greatest act of evil in human history as a precursor to the realization of the Jewish people’s dream of returning home? Do they inhabit separate worlds? I have used some 400 words to describe the nature of the war of words itself. I am a proponent of dialogue. Beginning with my own need to listen to the words of Israelis and Palestinians to better understand the situation and to try in a very small way to add my own two cents (well maybe even a half-shekel) toward the solution.
It’s easy to talk and to get angry. I watched the Internet blow up in the midst of the last war between Israel and Hamas, and the words quickly became incendiary in many different directions and friends, old and new alike, came and went. We couldn’t even talk about it. In part because we don’t know how to listen to an “other” who speaks or writes things that are critical and worse because they may include a grain of truth, a kernel of substance or even some unwanted facts. There is truth on both sides. Enough to condemn the “other” and to push them even farther away. And underneath that truth is death, the death of soldiers, the death of settlers, the death of civilians, the death of terrorists, the death of children and parents, and with it the death of hope.
People have learned to live with the death of sons and daughters, of fathers and mothers. Some become hard while others lose their hardness and many are lost in an endless search for the missing pieces of their hearts and lives. Many walk the avenues of their Holy Land carrying a pain that will not subside.
There are exceptions, groups that help the psychologically wounded to go on, to do things for others, to help each other and finally to help themselves. There is a cottage industry that has sprung up from those suffering loss themselves in search of answers. How does one look beyond the loss? Is that the outcome of an act of terrorism? Is the whole edifice of the Middle East battle over land, over rights and wrongs, over facts existing and facts created on the ground an act of terrorism against an enemy? Is there a way that both sides (really all sides), including all the helpers that don’t really help can get beyond the war against the stranger that resides on the other side of the hill? Too many lives have been sacrificed to not truly seek peace. Too many beautiful people are waiting to be added to the list of the dead.
The author is president of ICMEP, the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace, an NGO based in suburban Philadelphia. He can be reached at email@example.com.