Settling their differences

Settling their differenc

abed eriquat 248  (photo credit: Courtesy of The Israel Interfaith Encoutner)
abed eriquat 248
(photo credit: Courtesy of The Israel Interfaith Encoutner)
Palestinians and Israelis from W. Bank begin meeting on a regular basis. At least once a month, Palestinian lawyer Abed Eriqat, 29, passes through the one exit out of Abu Dis where there is no security barrier, gritting his teeth at the soldiers manning the checkpoint on the road where most of his life he had traveled freely to neighboring Jerusalem. To help him get through the wait and then interrogation, moments that he describes as the most humiliating and hopeless of his life, he sometimes uses an unusual tactic: remembering meetings with Israelis, even settlers, as a source of hope. "I still think it's an international crime that Israel settles the West Bank. But I'll meet a settler as a neighbor. It's an opportunity to expand my point of view and to help Israelis understand how I think." In search of Israelis for dialogue, Eriqat posted an ad on the list server of Israel's Bohemian Mideast Rainbow gatherings list last year. "I wanted to see which Israelis are really interested to know and commit to speaking to a Palestinian. If you believe in peace, why not speak with Palestinians about everything, to know the two sides of the story?" As the days and weeks passed, only one Israeli would respond - a woman in next-door Ma'aleh Adumim. As Eriqat clicked open this e-mail, his eyes widened. "You are living on my land," he muttered to himself. While Ma'aleh Adumim is generally described by Israelis as a suburb of Jerusalem built on unpopulated lands that in biblical times stretched between the Judah and Benjamin tribes, Israel's third-largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank is considered by many Abu Dis residents as stolen Palestinian land that would have been used for their own community's natural growth. But the next week, Eriqat traveled through the checkpoint and made his way from east to west Jerusalem to meet Leah Lublin, "the settler." PALESTINIANS often tell Lublin, 53, that they cannot have normalization with settlers. Eriqat, too, rushed to tell her the same at their first meeting. "I'm not a settler," she explains. "I don't consider myself Left or Right. I'm apolitical. I'm just someone who wants to live in peace in the country that I love. I moved to Ma'aleh Adumim to be close to my ailing father." In the mid- and late 1990s, though, Lublin did go to gatherings of Kach, a movement now outlawed by Israel as a Jewish terror organization. "I was a militant right-winger; I hated Palestinians because I didn't know them and I feared them," she says. But in the gatherings, Lublin and her husband found that they could not find common ground with Kach members: "It was negative energy. We didn't fit in." By 2001, Lublin fell into a state of despair. "The intifada was a very dark period. My kids were traveling on buses. We were calling each other all the time after suicide bombings. My teenage daughter had a boyfriend who was killed. My second daughter had a youth counselor who was also killed. It was really painful. The suicide bombers would do their thing; then we were dishing it back, pounding their communities, and I didn't see any end in sight or that any of these solutions were going to work." In 2002, as she was flipping through The Jerusalem Post, an article about the Interfaith Encounter Association caught her eye, and in a moment of impulse she picked up the phone to call its director, Yehuda Stolov. A modern Orthodox Jew who founded the IEA's dialogue groups shortly after the second intifada broke out in 2001, Stolov traces his non-political, interfaith relations-building approach to Jewish sources: Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook's teachings about universalism and the teachings of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, where he studied for six years. He also told Lublin about research in recent years, such as that of Dr. Ben Mollov of Bar-Ilan University, which found that non-political interfaith meetings, where people get to know each other, help lessen prejudice and the risk of participating in or supporting violence towards "the other." Inspired by her conversations with Stolov, Lublin headed out that weekend to the Tantur Ecumenical Institute on the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for her first interfaith retreat run by IEA. "I went with all these preconceived notions of Palestinians. Seeing 25 young Arabs, I thought, 'Oh no, they are going to blow the place up or follow me home and stab me,'" she says. "Up until that point, I had thought that we Jews were the only victims; but that weekend, I realized they were also victims, that many innocent Palestinians were also killed in this conflict, and that we were both in pain. That weekend I also got friendly with an artist from Ramallah. He picked up a fistful of soil and ran it through his fingers, saying 'I love this land.' And I said, 'You know, I love it, too.' It was a wonderful revelation that they could love this land as much as we do and that they are going to stay, and we are going to have to find a way to live together and to get over the fear of each other," she says. "When [the Palestinians] left [the retreat] they told us, 'Don't take buses.' I said Tfilat Haderech [the traveler's prayer] for them. I was [no longer] just worried about Jews - I also started worrying about them every time the IDF went into Nablus. We had become compassionate toward each other." After that, Lublin began attending any interfaith events that were not political. "When I went once to a left-wing meeting, I found it angry and insular; the political arena is not for me. These [interfaith] meetings are happy gatherings. When I see Muslims, Christians and Jews studying religious texts together or socializing together, I feel this is the kind of world I'd like to help create for my children and grandchildren, where there's tolerance and respect for one another. I believe that if a lot of people get involved [in dialogue], the politics will simply fall into place." Lublin told her friends about her new-found beliefs and activities. "They were shocked," she says. "Some said 'Don't tell me' or 'Grassroots movements won't help.' One couple stopped inviting us to their home." Six years after becoming the coordinator of the IEA's interfaith groups in Jerusalem, she thought to herself: "I can do more; we are preaching to the converted." So when she saw Eriqat's note on the Rainbow list, she rushed to respond. At the YMCA in Jerusalem, Lublin and Eriqat sat over coffee and chatted about family, work and life in their communities. And when Lublin suggested they start a group from neighboring Palestinian Abu Dis and Israeli Ma'aleh Adumim to study common themes in Islam and Judaism under the umbrella of the IEA, Eriqat was surprised. "Religion?" he said. "It seems to be what divides us." ERIQAT SOON opened up to the idea of gatherings that weren't political or exclusively social; and he and Lublin joked that meetings where Jews made chicken soup for Palestinians and Palestinians made knafe pastry for Israelis could not be the end goal. Though the IEA was having 4,000 participants a year meeting for non-political interfaith dialogue, despite incursions or terror attacks, this would be the first group where Palestinians and Israelis from neighboring Muslim and Jewish communities in the West Bank would meet on a regular basis. Eriqat's openness was an unusual result of the Palestinian uprising. His father, appointed in the early 1990s by Yasser Arafat as chief assistant of east Jerusalem governance, was a leader in the local Fatah movement and had been jailed two times by Israel because of his Fatah ties. The younger Eriqat, as a child, threw rocks as a symbol of resistance against occupation. Arabic-language TV stations in Israel and the West Bank would interview his 12-year-old sister as the youngest Palestinian jailed for throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, he says. Eriqat's father, a couple of years after being released from prison, where he learned Hebrew, decided to try a new tactic. He signed his son up for a Seeds of Peace summer camp in the US, shocking family and friends. "My mother cried. I said no, I was afraid," explained the younger Eriqat. The family thought it was a big mistake. Not one of his friends encouraged him. "But my father said, 'You will find Abed [Eriqat] a new man afterwards, and I want to invest in the peace process.'" Since his camp days as a teen, Eriqat has indeed joined and sponsored dozens of events with Israeli groups. Last year he launched an organization that introduces Palestinians to meditation as a tool to "make peace internally and circulate this [peace] into Palestine," he says, calling these his new tools of resistance. But this would be his first interfaith venture with Jews that would focus exclusively on religion and exclude politics. And unlike meetings with Peace Now and other left-wing Jewish activists, the Israeli Jews he would meet through the IEA have diverse political affiliations and are primarily religious. He also considered them settlers. Convincing the neighbors on both sides of the checkpoint to participate in such a meeting continues to be a challenge. Through Israeli eyes, Abu Dis is generally considered a hotbed for extremists. Three suicide bombers during the intifada came from the village, and Al-Quds University was known for supporting groups affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The campus was also home to the Abu-Jihad Museum honoring Palestinian "martyrs" and had just celebrated a week-long event honoring the life of the late Palestinian engineer of the suicide bomb, Yahya Ayyash. So when Lublin told her neighbors and posted an ad repeatedly on a local e-mail site inviting Ma'aleh Adumim residents to her home for meetings with Abu Dis residents, four people did sign on. But reaction from most went from cool to hostile. Nearly a dozen e-mails from Ma'aleh Adumim residents over the first months accused her of ruining the neighborhood or opening it up to terror. Though it has been mostly quiet in the last months, Lublin still occasionally hears an antagonistic remark. A short drive away into Palestinian territory, Eriqat also suffers the searing looks of some neighbors. The building and expansion of Ma'aleh Adumim, including the accompanying checkpoints, security barrier route and the stalled E-1 plan, infuriate Palestinians, who argue that building in occupied territory under Israeli rule not only breaks international and Israeli law and agreements but also interferes with Palestinian freedom of movement, civil rights, natural growth and plans to build a Palestinian state on contiguous land in the West Bank. Yet some of Eriqat's neighbors, like him, were curious. "SO CRAZY. So weird. So scary," were the first thoughts of Majdi Abed, 33, when, as a physics major at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis last year, he heard about the interfaith meetings in Ma'aleh Adumim. "'In a settlement?' I thought. Settlers are so extreme in their thoughts, even in their actions. And you need a permit [from Israel] to travel each time, and the checkpoints are so scary. The whole thing makes me go crazy and feel so scared, so bad," he says. "But I said yes - to see the place, to see what kind of people live there. What do they believe? What do they believe about us?" Some of Abed's friends in Jenin, where he was born and now teaches general science, were also potentially interested in the idea of meeting Jews and discussing each other's religion in an intimate, home environment. But, he says, "They all refuse the meeting place, Ma'aleh Adumim - a settlement." Abed and Eriqat's first meeting with MA residents was at a Hanukka party at Lublin's home, replete with traditional holiday jelly doughnuts, potato latkes, candle-lighting, songs, and stories about the miracle of the oil and the ancient Jewish Maccabees who resisted the Greek Hellenists who tried to convert them. "Hanukka was so wonderful. It was the first time I was invited as a human being - not a worker - into a Jewish home," says Abed. "It was very intimate. Everyone was very friendly. Even the cakes were so wonderful." In the following months as the group was formally established, they were able to gather a small group of Israelis and Palestinians to join meetings for celebrating Jewish and Muslim holidays and discussing topics such as women's roles in religion, religious sects, war, prayer, rituals and ethics in the respective religions. Abed, who now drives three hours each way when he can for meetings, had worked with Jews in the past but had little knowledge of their traditions and beliefs, he says. "Such meetings give a precious cultural, political and historical understanding to the nature of the conflict. It also empowers my knowledge of Islam and helps us introduce Islam to other nations and wipe out bad stereotypes of Islam." Are Jewish stereotypes also changed? "Exactly," he replies. "When you hear about [Jewish] history, culture and religion from [Jewish people] themselves, it leads to understanding about a lot of things - like how they feel about the Holy Land." "Abed is a teacher and he is so special," says Lublin. "I can imagine that in his own casual way, he will teach his children and students not to hate." Still, the Palestinians face hurdles and, sometimes, mixed emotions. TO CROSS the border between the Palestinian West Bank, under Palestinian civil rule, and the Jewish West Bank, under Israeli civil and military rule, Palestinians must get permits from the IDF to enter Israel. The process of applying two weeks in advance of each meeting includes taking time off work during business hours to pick the permits up at the IDF's District Coordinating Office and waiting sometimes up to a full workday for them to be turned over, the participants say. Sometimes permits are denied without explanation. For those times when the Palestinians receive approval and the permits are issued as planned, they also worry about being interrogated at the checkpoint at the entrance to Ma'aleh Adumim by security guards, surprised to see a group of Palestinians who are not day laborers. "The police sometimes call me [from the entrance]," says Lublin. "They ask, 'Did you invite these people? What are their names?' I told the head of security once, 'Why don't you come on over and check us out? We are studying the Torah and the Koran together.'" The experiences of getting permits and going through checkpoints, coupled with memories of the intifadas, where his family home was twice destroyed by the IDF and classmates killed, says Abed, creates a painful contradiction for him. "It's an eternal, complicated feeling of pain, with contradictions inside of me, to be in my friend's house and to be in a settlement." Also, he adds, "I don't tell [Palestinians] where the group meets anymore; they will have a negative impression of me." Jewish participants struggle with their own complications. Of her first meetings, Esther Frumkin, 48, of Ma'aleh Adumim, says she learned new information every time, found observing and talking to Palestinians a new and interesting experience, and discovered that the Palestinians also have a great love for their own religion and interest in and respect for Judaism. "But I also found myself disturbed because I started to see a lot of things, like news items, in a new light once I personally knew people who were affected by those events. I couldn't stay as detached," she says. "I have told my family. But they are all skeptical, including my children. I was surprised and distressed to see how much anti-Arab feeling they have unconsciously absorbed from their environment. I don't tell a lot of people that I go to the meetings. I guess I feel embarrassed, and I don't want to draw any attacks from people who don't approve." SITTING IN the Aroma Cafe on Mount Scopus in a pressed Oxford shirt after the first dozen or so interfaith meetings in Ma'aleh Adumim, Eriqat pauses and plays with his silver wedding band when asked about normalization with Israelis. "I have family and friends who are not satisfied with my work. They call me 'normalization man.' Sometimes this makes me angry. This stereotype could have destroyed my relations with my wife. People were telling her that I 'work with the enemy.'" Eriqat's picture was once plastered across the Al-Quds University campus, charging: "Israelis kill Palestinians, and Palestinians shake hands with Israelis" after he arranged a dialogue between Al-Quds University and Tel Aviv University students, he says. "It was very hard. The posters were everywhere. I was scared. I picked up the phone and called [Al-Quds University president] Sari Nusseibeh. He said, 'If you do not believe in what you do, then stop your project. If you do believe, then continue on in what you believe.'" Nusseibeh's practical advice helped refocus his commitment, Eriqat says. "After that, I started many new projects. But I also made some enemies." Enemies notwithstanding and despite the mixed feelings he has about crossing the checkpoint to spend time in a Jewish settlement, his relations with the Jews he met at the Ma'aleh Adumim interfaith meetings are so strong that he invited them to his wedding earlier this year. The former Palestinian intifada activist who once threw rocks and the former right-wing militant describe each other as the dearest of friends. Beyond the surprising friendships Eriqat has discovered, he sees the meetings as a real source for change. "[In Ma'aleh Adumim] I feel hopeful; I see it as an opportunity," he says. "I want to show that Palestinians are regular people, nice people, and not terrorists. I want to show Israelis how the checkpoints, the wall and occupation influence us, because the media does not show this reality. When you say 'Israeli,' Palestinians think soldiers; occupation. They don't know anything else, so how can they change their minds? But if they could sit with an Israeli, they would change their minds 100 percent. They would be able to see an Israeli as a human being. I want Palestinians to see that not all Israelis are enemies. And I don't want Palestinians to be terrorists. This is a great opportunity. We forget nationality and find many things in common," he says. Ultimately, can such dialogues between Palestinians and Israelis influence politics and security by influencing people to support different ideas, different choices and different leaders? "I hope," says Eriqat. "I hope, I hope, I hope."