Three months ago, I would never have pictured myself walking down Jerusalem’s Street of the Prophets with six Palestinian men while exchanging friendly banter about the best place to get hummus in the capital.
Until then, the only Palestinians I knew were primarily in the service fields: repairmen, builders, movers, cab drivers, doctors and nurses whom I had encountered over the years of living in the Jerusalem area. I even had a couple of their numbers stored in my cellphone for the next emergency.
But, like most Israelis, I would wager that I didn’t really know any Palestinians beyond that employer/worker milieu. And I’m still not sure if I know these guys I was walking with, bearing names like Muhammad, Yassin and Ibrahim.
They are all middle-class Muslims in the 30-45-year-old range, living in Jerusalem-area neighborhoods like Azariya, Hizmeh, Abu Dis and on the Mount of Olives. One of the them is a bus driver, another a computer engineer, a couple work in factories in Mishor Adumim. None of them holds Israeli citizenship, but they all possess Jerusalem residency ID cards. One of the two Muhammads carries an oud over his shoulder.
We were returning to our homes – me to the West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim, them to their undefined enclaves that weave back and forth around the security barrier.
Are they part of Jerusalem, are they over the Green Line? Are they Jordanian? Palestinian? There is no one answer.
But labeling them wasn’t the impetus that brought us together. It was something much simpler – an effort to learn about each other’s lives, customs, and backgrounds.
We were part of a monthly interfaith dialogue among a dozen or so Jews and Muslims that had been meeting for years with a changing cast of participants, anchored by some regulars on both sides.
Since tentatively deciding to attend the informal sessions at a neutral meeting place on the western side of the city, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with the group.
In addition to talking about our jobs, families, and lives, at each meeting we choose a topic – dietary laws, marriage customs, prophets – and discuss the Jewish and Muslim viewpoints. Sometimes it’s a real Tower of Babel mix of Hebrew, Arabic, English, and with the arrival at one meeting of a Ukrainian-born convert to Islam from Sur Bahir, Russian.
But everyone somehow makes themselves understood, and it’s done without raised voices. That’s because, I reckon, in addition to the calming presence of the female participants, we avoid the meaty issues like existence, terrorism, two-states, and incitement.
So what’s the point, you ask? Aren’t we just perpetuating a Kumbaya false sense of reality? Perhaps, but maybe that’s the kind of reality we need about now. Not every discussion or encounter needs to be about the existential problems surrounding Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem – and perhaps they should never be. Maybe it’s better to focus on what we share as humans beings and as residents of the same city.
Yes, Jerusalem and its future are life and death issues – they are a struggle between peoples, two nations. But at the same time, it’s that life part that is ongoing, day by day, in small increments measured in work, leisure, sorrow, and joy.
And whether we come to terms with it now, or need to wait another few decades to internalize it, the 300,000 or so Muslims living in and around Jerusalem – just like the Jews of Jerusalem and the Jews of Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion – aren’t going anywhere. We are fated to be neighbors, whatever the outcome of currently nonexistent negotiations about the future of the city.
Even if we can’t find common ground on the right of return, the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel or the best hummus in Jerusalem (actually there was a general consensus that it’s Akramawi near Damsascus Gate), it’s incumbent upon residents of both sides of the city to attempt to learn about each other.
And in these meetings, discussing the mundane and the holy, we’ve done just that. I don’t know whether you would call us friends, encounter group participants, or strangers simply thrust together by circumstance.
But, at the end of our 90-minute sessions, when Muhammad takes out his oud and we sit in a moment of tranquility and listen, there’s a Jerusalem mosaic being created that’s based on inclusion, not division.
Does it achieve anything? Maybe it’s just a Quixotic attempt to go against the far more powerful stream of hate, insensitivity, and racism, some of it government-sanctioned, that’s endemic to Israeli society’s relationship with a people that has been an adversary since before the creation of the state.
But the alternative of not trying is no longer tolerable.
So that’s how I found myself in the middle of my new Palestinian acquaintances on the Street of the Prophets without any apprehension or fear.
That may be a pretty low bar, but there’s nowhere to take it but up.
Who knows? Maybe once we solve all the problems between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, we’ll launch dialogues between left- and rightwing Israelis and secular and religious Israelis. Those, however, may prove to be tougher nuts to crack.