Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, January 1, 2001
This commentary article was given a half page in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Lauren Gelfond (LGelfond@zahav.net.il ) is a writer who lives in Jerusalem. She tells not of the unconscionable ongoing violence, but rather about risks and steps women and men can, and do, take to move relationships in the right direction toward a common future beyond war.
Lauren Gelfond recommends this: "If each of us pays more attention to our own behavior and seeks to be more emotionally generous, perhaps that is a beginning."
THE STARTING POINT
The strife in Jerusalem is as old as the city itself.
And so is the solution.
By Lauren Gelfond
It wasn't my thing, not really. I do love synagogue and other Jewish celebrations and rituals. But when people put their arms around me and sway, I get nervous. It feels contrived. I want to bat them away.
Still, when my friend Eliyahu invited me to a peace vigil in Jerusalem's Old City, I thought it would be worth a look. For us Jerusalemites, praying for peace holds special significance. It is worth a little discomfort, especially these days, filled with so much fear and tragedy.
Eliyahu is a Hassidic Jew who learned about reconciliation during his college and post-college years in Berkeley. Today, he lives in Jerusalem and spends much of his time meeting with rabbis and sheikhs. He believes that Judaism and Islam hold the keys to conciliation for both our wounded peoples, and so he brings Palestinians and Israelis together to pray, to study religious texts, to meditate, and to seek alternate routes to peace. Politics is always an aside.
He invites people of all faiths to the weekly peace vigil, so I called on my friend Nader, a Palestinian who lives in the Old City, to join me. We met inside the Jaffa Gate - where we always do - the gate that separates his world from mine.
Since the intifada started, my friendship with Nader has been affected in just one way: We now speak only in English instead of Hebrew. He thinks it's safer for me to be perceived as a tourist rather than an Israeli when I'm in Arab neighborhoods. And it can be dangerous for a Palestinian to be perceived by his community as sympathetic to Israel or Israelis. I guess he is afraid. I am afraid sometimes, too.
It was quiet at the vigil, except for the heavy police presence at The Wall and the Temple Mount. In the shadows of the police, who were clad in full riot gear, we sat in a circle on wool rugs with memorial candles burning before us and talked about what we expected and how we could make a difference.
One speaker suggested we not use the expression "Muslim Day of Rage," because it reinforces stereotypes about Muslims and violence.
Another speaker told us that on her way to the vigil, a Palestinian had asked her the time and they had started chatting. She said, "There he was, reading his newspaper and hanging out, and yet this was not the vision the world had of Palestinians." He told her, "Most of us on both sides are not involved in the fighting. It is just the fringes of both societies." We just want to live our lives, he told her, and she agreed.
A yeshiva student related a story from the Torah that implored us to be more compassionate to "the other."
A man in a white tunic, white yarmulke and silver Star of David stood up. It is those who create the most trouble who are the most in need of peace, of love. It is they who are crying out for help, a cry we must heed, he said.
Later, Nader told me he "especially liked that guy in white."
After discussions and personal reflections, we had 20 minutes of silent meditation and prayers for peace in the moments before Muslim prayers on the Mount were to end. The week before, the group had heard rioting and crying and shooting as prayers ended.
I don't meditate or even know how, but those moments of silence were intense and moving for me - sitting in such proximity to these Jewish and Muslim holy sites, to the police officers, to these peace activists, to my Palestinian friend, to my observant Jewish friends - wondering how much people's lives would change in the next half hour. Nader leaned over and whispered that he was going home now, before there was any trouble.
No, I said. Stay with us. And he did.
This week, thankfully, quiet prevailed - at least from where we were sitting. Everything seemed almost normal. We didn't see any rocks being thrown over The Wall or hear any shots.
We were led in Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers for peace and compassion. Then, when people started hugging and holding hands, I felt nervous. That isn't really my thing.
But with Eliyahu holding one hand and Nader holding the other, I did feel hopeful. I was connecting an Orthodox Israeli and a Palestinian. And it wasn't contrived. If we could do this, others could, too.
Sometimes people say there has been too much pain for everyone to forgive or trust each other. But Nader's father lost siblings in the 1948 war, and his son is my good friend. I have Jewish-Israeli friends who almost died in suicide bomb attacks, and many of them still believe in peace. A writer for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz pointed out recently that the United States made a real peace with Japan and with Vietnam. If they can do it, why can't we?
Of course, here we are neighbors with serious political issues that need to be worked out. But in the meantime, if we can see each other as humans in need of compassion, and listen to and validate each other's concerns, perhaps there is a better chance for those issues to succeed. That's what we were trying to do.
I have my moments of cynicism, though. At the vigil, I saw a Jewish man swaying in prayer and it reminded me of all the Jews in concentration camps who prayed for their salvation and were killed anyway. But then it occurred to me that our prayers had, at the very least, a deep effect upon each of us. They had raised our consciousness.
I thought about greed and defenses and self-centeredness and how that plays out. If each of us pays more attention to our own behavior and seeks to be more emotionally generous, perhaps that is a beginning.
And, as the Jews and Muslims prayed together, I also thought about the effect it had for each people to see the other as having common needs and goals and values. Eliyahu says that witnessing joy and suffering brings healing to others and ourselves.
And that is something - a beginning at least - that I am willing to sway for, even if it makes me uncomfortable.
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