By Amy Loewenthal, RRC Student and Slifka Intern
additional photos by Karen Greene
20 May, 2009
It seemed that the Pope wanted to go exactly where I had planned to take a group of Reconstructionist rabbinical students and rabbis on a multifaith tour on the Israel side the Green Line. Since the streets were blocked off for the Pontiff and his entourage during his week-long visit to the Holy Land, we had graciously rescheduled our tour.
A week late but undaunted, we met on a sunny morning at the Jaffa Gate where I briefed our group of RRC students, rabbis, and their family members. We walked together through the Christian and Muslim Quarters of the Old City, at times yielding the narrow Via Dolorosa to groups of Christian pilgrims chanting prayers and carrying large wooden crosses. Climbing a myriad of short staircases and walking across rooftops and patios, we made our way to the home of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari.
Sheikh Bukhari is a Sufi sheikh, head of the Uzbeke community in Jerusalem, and co-founder of Jerusalem Peacemakers. The Sheikh seated us in his beautiful living room filled with elegant Middle Eastern furniture and archival cases of ancient Islamic documents.
Thanking the Sheikh for receiving us, I explained that I had the pleasure of meeting and traveling with the Sheikh through my Slifka internship and Jerusalem Peacemakers. I outlined my major area of learning this year — that multifaith religious interactions in the Holy Land happen within a political context.
Some say that religion here is the source of the problem, the cause of war and violence. In my view, war and violence arise from competing national aspirations – they arise from politics rather than from religion. Rather than view religion as causing of the conflict, I see religion and multifaith interaction as a tremendous source for resolving the conflict.
In the first place, the sacred texts of the major religions of the Holy Land show that we share basic values and ethical beliefs which can form a basis for respectful co-existence. There will always be a painful history to contend with. Many injustices need to be acknowledged, but there is no way to undo the past. What we can do is to live in the present and create a vision for the future. Our common religious and ethical values will be the foundation on which future co-existence will be built.
Secondly, religion is a way into many people’s hearts. Some say that the Oslo Agreements failed because the political leaders’ signatures on these documents did not reflect the will of their peoples. A multifaith study group of clergy determined that despite the signing of the Oslo Agreements, the Israeli and Palestinian people on the whole were not adequately prepared to embrace peace. This clergy group has been meeting to plan strategies to “influence the people’s hearts and minds so they can accept peace in the future.” Religious clergy are in a unique position to reach people; their words can touch the people they serve far more effectively than can official declarations.
Thirdly, sometimes the conflict here seems so entrenched and complex as to be impossible for humans to solve. If so, if it is beyond our human abilities, then we can turn to G-d for help. Even if I don’t believe in a G-d who can reach down into our world to intervene, I can believe that there exist in the universe possibilities which we cannot currently conceive of. I can believe that there is a something larger than us humans which will allow us reach beyond our smallness to bridge our differences. A completely practical rational person will conclude that the conflict is unsolvable: to maintain a sense of hope here, one needs to draw from the realm of faith.
I asked the Sheikh to comment on my thoughts, to tell us about his life and work, and to discuss some passages from Koran about war and peace that we had prepared.
Sheikh Bukhari presented a number of teachings and anecdotes showing how religion could unite us. He told us about his life, how he initially avoided his hereditary obligation to serve as a sheikh, emigrating to the United States as a young man. He told us a profound story of expressing his love for humanity as a manager of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Chicago. Our group smiled in amazement as he recounted stories about reaching across barriers to connect with people, including a young man who came to rob him at gunpoint. Ultimately he returned to his family home in Jerusalem and continued his holy work in a more formal way.
We discussed Koran texts (49:13, 22:39-41) on the role of religion in peace and war. Michael Ramberg, a fourth-year RRC student, was particularly interested in a passage which permits war against those who destroy homes. “The Israeli authority’s demolition of Palestinian homes is such a fraught topic here and now, and this text seemed to justify responding violently. It worried me – it struck me as a religious condoning of violence. But the Sheikh set my mind at ease. He made the distinction that although you have permission to fight, if you are wise you will avoid fighting. He showed that elsewhere in the Koran it says that if your enemy inclines to peace, you should make peace. The Sheikh was a good role model of how to deal with a difficult text. This is useful to me as a rabbinical student because there are so many verses like that in the Torah. He did a careful reading, pointing out that you have permission to fight, but not a mandate to fight. Also he didn’t allow one verse to stand out of context, but rather brought verses together to comment on each other. ”
We thanked the Sheikh and left his home. This was the first time that many of our group members had met and heard from a Muslim about Islam. Karen Greene, an infotech professional and partner of an RRC student, expressed appreciation of the Sheikh’s gentility, sweetness and reflective style of speaking. We made our way to the Lion’s Gate where a van brought us to the Mount of Olives home of another Jerusalem Peacemaker, Ibrahim Abu el Hawa.
Ibrahim’s family has lived on the Mount of Olives for 1,400 years. The Mount of Olives was traditionally a place of hospitality, receiving all kinds of travelers who would spend the night before setting out for their destination of Jerusalem or other cities. Although Ibrahim’s family was Muslim, they had many connections with local Jews and Christians: cutting and delivering tombstones for Jewish graves, and delivering milk and providing security services for the nearby Russian Church. Ibrahim continues in the tradition of providing hospitality and welcoming diverse people. Travelers of all religions and many nationalities stay at his house. We were introduced to a guest who joined us for lunch, Sister Ellen, a retired professor and peace activist originally from California.
Ibrahim’s work for peace and reconciliation happens on many levels: on an official governmental level, with small groups, and person-to-person. His wall is hung with pictures and newspaper clippings documenting his ambassadorial and humanitarian work. A clipping shows how he was hailed by Hindu crowds in India in appreciation for arranging the transport of the body of an Indian Hindu man who died while visiting Israel. A photo shows Ibrahim’s long time work of helping a Bedouin community near Jericho. A framed key of Shelby County, Tennessee was received in thanks for his offer to donate land on the Mount of Olives for a ranch for deaf children. A photo shows Ibrahim signing a document which he described as “adding his approval for the first woman rabbi of Israel.” A great roar of appreciation arose from our group and many took photos of this picture.
Ibrahim took us downstairs for a lovely vegetarian lunch and invited us to make a blessing. I made the traditional ha-motzi over the pita bread, and invited Sister Ellen and Ibrahim to add their blessings. Over lunch, Ibrahim shared his philosophy of dissolving the fear which separates people from one another. He told us of his role in defusing conflict at a recent house demolition on the Mount of Olives. Housing demolitions in East Jerusalem are conducted by the Israeli government on houses which were built without official building permits, which are almost impossible to obtain. When demolitions are carried out selectively in Palestinian neighborhoods, local residents may view them as acts of political aggression rather than routine enforcement of civil zoning codes. The soldiers who accompanied the bulldozer were confronted by crowds of angry young men. Ibrahim spoke out in warning to the soldiers who were fingering the triggers of their guns and to the neighborhood youth who were preparing to throw stones. He explained that even though the house to be demolished belonged to his niece, he understood that the soldiers were there to do an assignment and he didn’t blame them. On the other hand, if they were to continue to finger their triggers, they would have a terrible scene on their hands. Ibrahim made the young men promise that they would allow the bulldozer crew to do their job and not interfere with the soldiers who were protecting the crew. All agreed to Ibrahim’s terms, and the demolition, though considered by some to be unjust, proceeded without any violence. One of the soldiers recognized Ibrahim because they had danced at the wedding of one of Rabbi Froman’s sons together. The soldier apologized, but Ibrahim reiterated that he didn’t blame him for doing his assigned job.
After lunch, Sister Ellen told us about her peace activism and showed us beautiful textiles made by Palestinian women outside of Hebron. Several of us bought items to use as challah covers and tallit bags. We invited Sister Ellen to join us at the following Reconstructionist Minyan Shabbat service [which she attended and enjoyed.]
While we waited for taxis to take us to classes, work, or home, Ibrahim showed us a poster recently painted by a guest in his home, a poster which echoes Ibrahim’s themes of sharing the Holy Land in love.
Micah Weiss, a Wesleyan student and cousin to RRC faculty member, Sarra Lev, expressed appreciation for “being able to meet such holy people.” Many concurred and were glad they received business cards from the Sheikh and Ibrahim, because they hope to maintain contact with them. This tour was a success, bringing current and future Jewish leaders in contact with Muslim leaders to learn and to build multifaith connections.