Impressions of a visiting editor from Johannesburg

On a trip to Israel, we South African journalists found an extraordinary number of individuals and groups actively striving to make peace a reality.

Al Aksa Mosque  (photo credit: AP)
Al Aksa Mosque
(photo credit: AP)
Blessed are the simple minded, for they believe they understand the Holy Land, although its complexity has vexed humanity for millennia.
Last week, a group of South African journalists were visiting. We were exposed to a plethora of viewpoints. Among others, we talked to government representatives, Zionist organizations, the PLO, the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, Jewish West Bank settlers, Palestinian and Israeli journalists and high-powered archeological and historical guides.
We were taken to holy places central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We visited Ramallah and spent much of our time in Jerusalem. We went to the high security wall that divides parts of this ancient city from Palestinian-controlled territory.
Frankly, it’s too much to take in. However, there was a glaring gap in our itinerary and interviews. Gaza was not on our list, nor was Hamas, although not through any lack of will on our part.
Disturbing as the idea is to many, if invited by Hamas or its backers I would visit to try to understand their world view. There is a vast difference between learning about a situation through the media and actually walking among and talking to people experiencing the daily realities.
TO SAY there are two sides to the story would be simplistic, whether discussing the broader question of Israel or the geographically narrower one of Jerusalem. In politics and in religion, Israel is not united. Coalition politics, which Britain is grappling with, has long been practiced in Israel, where it is almost unheard of for any one party to command a majority in the Knesset.
Jews make up 76.5 percent of the population of 7.4 million, Muslims 16%, Christians 2% and Druse 1.5%. Yet Israeli Jewry spans a vast range from totally secular to ultra-Orthodox. An old joke is that if you ask any two Jews a question you’ll hear at least three opinions.
Debate and dissent seem to be part of the Jewish makeup, going back to Esau and Jacob. These grandsons of Abraham, to whom Jews trace their ancestry, “quarreled violently among themselves,” according to Jewish historian Cecil Roth. So, too, did the offspring of David, the king who, just over 3,000 years ago, founded a city within what is now the Jewish capital Jerusalem.
No doubt Jews have an historical claim to Israel, but it cannot be the only claim. David did not set up camp on vacant land. Jerusalem was occupied by Canaanites, whom the children of Israel were commanded by their god to erase, “to completely wipe out their culture and to inherit their land,” according to Avigdor Shinan, editor of the tome Israel: People/Land/State.
We did not meet anyone who told us they now hold this view, which in the modern age sounds extreme.
What we found, without denying any of the hate or violence from any side, was an extraordinary number of individuals and organizations not only willing to share this troubled land, but actively striving to make peaceful cooperation a reality. These are not political leaders at the highest level but effective community leaders, people of goodwill.
ALTHOUGH ISRAEL bristles with intensity, and security is a deadly problem in what world media portray as a vortex of territorial disputes, terror and hate, that is not the whole picture. There is also good news.
There are many examples of Jews and Muslims working together. One of the most touching is the Jerusalem Peacemaker project run by Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari and Eliahu McLean. Bukhari says its first meetings attracted few people, but “now we have thousands.”
One initiative it is involved in, the Hug of Jerusalem, which started modestly four years ago on the June 21 summer solstice, attracted more than 2,000 last year. People of different faiths gather to circle the Old City, preaching unity, accompanied by drumming and singing.
Bukhari has encountered hostility. “I have been called bad names, had chairs thrown at me and been spat upon.” His lament is “the media never mention our achievements.”
McLean believes Jerusalem is “the most contested piece of real estatein the world.” Equally, he says, it can serve as a bridge to bringpeople together; if folk here can get along, anyone can.
There’s also the Abrahamic Reunion, a group of 25 spiritual leaders of the main faiths deriving from the prophet Abraham.
Goodwill is also evident in such diverse places as the Jerusalem MusicCenter, where Jewish and Arab youngsters learn together in harmony.
There is Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center, which reachesout to all. Its pediatric cardiology unit treats at least 50Palestinian children a year, including from Hamas’s volatile Gaza Strip.
Close to Gaza, at much-rocketed Sderot, we encountered the mixedIsraeli-Palestinian peace team of teenage soccer players, boys andgirls, who will be playing in South Africa during next month’s FIFAWorld Cup.
Even among maligned West Bank Jewish settlers, we encountered onecommunity that sought cooperation rather than the security wall.
Each example, and others, can be countered with harsh realities and cynicism.
Palestinians who don’t resist are stigmatized as “normalizers.” Somenon-journalist South African Jews on our tour regard these initiativesas too political and contrived.
There are terrible tensions between the PLO’s Fatah, which appears tobe a bloated, donor-dependent bureaucracy, and radical Hamas. Onebenefits from the status quo, the other wants to wipe Israel off themap.
It’s not naïve to look for positive signs in this bleak landscape. Itis not impossible that goodwill can grow until it gathers unstoppablemomentum.
If enough people believe and hope, and take positive action, you never know what might evolve.
The writer is the editor of The Citizen.