Saturday, December 6, 2008

Interfaith Encounter in the West Bank.

.מפגש בין-דתים בגדה המערבית

On Thursday-Friday, Jessica and I participated in a large retreat sponsored by the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Hope Flowers School. There were approximately thirty participants: in addition to Jessica and I there were two Arab Christians, two overseas Christians, five Jewish students in the Hebrew University Middle Eastern Studies program, five other Jewish Israelis, and about fifteen Palestinians (I don't think there were any Israeli Arabs at this event although IEA also facilitates encounters between Jewish and Arab Israelis). The theme was The Binding of the Son of Abraham.

Our experience started on Thursday afternoon. Jessica's bus was delayed in getting her home, so shortly after she made it back from school, we left the apartment and hailed a cab, which would take us to the meeting location for the organized transportation. A road was cut off, so we were stuck in traffic and ended up having to walk. During the weekend, we heard two explanations for the traffic: The first was that a חפץ חשוד (chafetz chashud, "suspicious package") was in the road so traffic was stopped and the other that the army's forceful removal of settlers from their houses in Hebron had backed traffic up all the way to Jerusalem. Regardless, we were late arriving at the meeting point, but we still got there before the van did, and we didn't end up leaving for another half hour as we waited for the arrival of one more participant who was also delayed because of the closed road.

We rode in the van with the five Hebrew University students, a local Israeli woman, and an Arab IEA coordinator. We drove through East Jerusalem and ended up just outside the boundaries of the city, not far from Bethlehem and on the way to Gush Etzion, between Gilo and Beit Jala. When we got the old, sparse Everest Hotel, we entered a large dining room that also served as lounge and that had a large green tarp serving as the "walls" of a small conference room. We stood awkwardly in this dining room, not knowing what to do. In addition to the nine of us from the van there were also a dozen or so Palestinians already there - smoking hookah, playing music, watching TV, and talking. No one seemed like they were in charge, and most of the people milling around were already formed into groups. But we were here for the weekend, so we tried to settle ourselves in.

We made our way over to Bob, an Orthodox Rabbi who volunteers with IEA and with whom Jessica has done some work in her internship. He was speaking to a Palestinian--let's call him Sahib--and we joined them. Sahib and Bob discovered that they both had a passing interest in geology, and Sahib invited Bob to look at a special stone that he had with him.

Shortly after being left alone, a hotel worker started assigning rooms to our group, and we were taken up to our room. It had two small beds, a desk, a closet, a window with a view of the roof, and a medium-sized bathroom. Not too shabby. We dropped off our things and made our way back downstairs.

Still there was nothing happening downstairs, so Jessica and I sat down at one of the tables. Shortly thereafter, Bob, Sahib, and a friend of Sahib's from engineering courses at university--let's call him Rabi--joined us at our table. Sahib and Rabi were both very friendly and were telling us about their hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. There's no need for violence, they said; most people on both sides want peace. In their opinion, the problem is almost entirely with the politicians (on both sides though moreso on the Israeli side), who don't adequately represent the majority of their constituents. Of course, Hamas and the extremist terrorists are a problem as well. However, in their opinion, most Palestinians want peace. It should be simple: Give the Palestinians their own country with Jerusalem as its capital (and not Israel's), and let the peoples go on their ways. When I pressed Rabi about why Jerusalem couldn't be the capital of both countries, he said that one city can't belong to two countries. "Maybe with a name change..." suggested Sahib, and Rabi grudgingly agreed that it probably wasn't so important that West Jerusalem not be the capital of Israel if East Jerusalem were the capital of Palestine. At least, that's how I interpreted their position.

Additionally, Sahib told us the story of his and his brother's imprisonment for a year and a half. He recounted that he had left his hometown with papers to go into Israel and was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to produce identity. He didn't have any ID, and a Shin Bet soldier gave him an option: Work for him on the Sabbath or go to jail. "Would you betray your people? There are some things that I will never do." Rather than subject himself to the arbitrary demands of the soldier, Sahib and his brother agreed to go to jail.

There, Sahib put his life on hold but underwent a significant personal blossoming. He learned how to make stones into small pieces of art using just a screw. He wrote poetry, drew pictures, and crafted all sorts of items for personal use and for his friends. I asked him, "If you were put into prison for a year and a half just for not having ID, why aren't you angry at Israel?" Sahib said that such a position isn't healthy for the individual. His time in jail gave him ample time to think, to learn, and to be creative, and he's grateful for the time he had to explore himself. I'm sure that contributors to The Sun have had similar experiences, but I was certainly surprised to meet a Palestinian with that mentality here in the West Bank.

We were encouraged to move into the "conference room" for the first session, and Bob pulled us aside. "I don't deny that Sahib's story could be entirely true; there are absolutely soldiers, especially Shin Bet agents, who would act exactly like that. But the chances of him and his brother being jailed for a year and a half just for not having ID are extremely low." Bob volunteers as part of border security and has a lot of first-hand experience with illegal border crossings. "There just isn't enough room in the jails for guys like him. We don't have enough room for the real criminals, so every day we round up literally truckloads of guys just like him and ship them back to the West Bank. It seems to me very unlikely that he would be locked up for no good reason; that just doesn't make sense to me. Maybe he was totally innocent--I'm not saying it's not a possibility--but maybe not, or maybe they were after his brother. His story could be entirely true, and I have no reason to believe that he's lying, but it's hard to believe that those are all the facts."

Jessica and I appreciated Bob's sobering perspective on Sahib's story and were faced immediately with a real, complex issue in this society. What happens and what he thinks happened and what they think happened and what "we" think happened are all incredibly varied and variable. Bob's probably right - there probably is more to the story than just the fact that Sahib and his brother didn't have ID (though Sahib is the proud owner of a new ID card). On the other hand, what's important to focus on is that Sahib doesn't hate all Israelis, that he wants peace, and that even being in an Israeli prison didn't sour him to life. I'm sure his story is very complex, but ultimately he seems committed to wanting to just live his life in Palestine free of foreign oversight as well as domestic disturbances.

We sat down in a circle of chairs for the opening remarks. Yehuda Stolov, who founded and runs IEA, introduced the program, and the representative from the Hope Flowers School introduced herself and translated Yehuda's English into Arabic. Yehudah emphasized that all participants were to feel that they can share honestly with one another and that they should keep an open mind throughout the proceedings. Also, politics was completely off the table. This was going to be a cultural and religious exchange; politics was not up for discussion.

We had a round of names and then we were challenged to line ourselves up in order according to birthday - classic icebreaker! Having completed the simple task, we arranged ourselves into groups of four and then were told to introduce ourselves to the group. After everyone started talking, Yehuda added that it would be good to answer a question based on the weekend's theme: "When was there a time that someone else sacrificed for you?"

If the leaderless, aimless wandering before the opening session hadn't been clue enough, we were now to have the first real taste of the laissez-faire leadership style that Yehuda adopts. Many groups stood around, uninspired to move, including ours. One of our Palestinian group members was talking to someone else, and I and an Israeli student stood awkwardly waiting for him to finish. When he did, he followed another group out of the conference room, and the second Palestinian quietly followed him. The Israeli and I followed suit and we saw that he had joined with a second group, which we also joined, forming a group of seven. Jessica and I weren't in the same discussion group for the entire weekend, but that probably turned out for the best.

Although the official language of this encounter was supposed to be English, we learned quite quickly that most of the Palestinian participants were only comfortable speaking Arabic. Luckily for us, there was a member of our group fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew with a fair amount of English as well. He helped us facilitate introductions. We had an Israeli student (Tomer), an orthodox rabbi (Bob), a Palestinian musician, and three Palestinian coworkers in government jobs. Our group definitely wasn't interested in answering the sacrifice question, and about halfway through the allotted time, our organized discussion broke up.

Although I had been included in the conversation up to a certain point, once it became clear that the group was no longer on topic, most of the participants began conversing in Arabic together. I sat and listened for several minutes before Tomer asked me a question about living in Israel. I moved over to sit nearer to him, and two Palestinians joined in our conversation. We talked about Middle East studies at Hebrew University and in Israel in general - Tomer doesn't have a single Arab teacher (not even for Arabic language), and he thinks it's a big problem. I was later to learn that Tomer believes that Arabic language should be mandatory in all Israeli schools (officially it is, but it's not enforced at all) and that he might be interested in trying to institute such a change.

Our conversation was going well, but before long we were pulled into dinner. There was a natural separation of ethnicities at the dinner tables (not entire but sufficient), and we were served standard Middle Eastern fare (pita, hummus, babaganoush, peppers/tomatoes/cucumbers, onions in tomato-y sauce, cauliflower/pickles/carrots, etc.). The "vegetarian option" was a scoop of brown rice with a pea or two stuck inside, but the veggies on the table were good enough for a regular meal.

After dinner, we had our first "social activity." In addition to the religion-based discussion groups planned for the following day, general time to be and talk with one another was also deemed of high importance, and this first evening activity was intended to help people get to know one another. The musician from our group (as well as a couple other people) took turns playing the oud, a pear-shaped fret-less lute that reminds one of a guitar. According to Jessica, the instrumentalists were playing individual notes--rather than chords--on the strings (which were grouped in pairs), which would be significantly more difficult than playing the guitar. The music was interesting and soothing, and Jessica and I were fairly tired by this point, so we called it a night.

Although we hadn't specifically noticed that no one had taken their coats off during the entire retreat so far, it became extremely and painfully evident that there was no heat in this building and that our room was pitifully poor at retaining heat. Layers of clothes and multiple blankets couldn't keep the chill out, and the night passed slowly and uncomfortably. Sadly, the next day would also be plagued by the everpresent cold that had set in overnight.

Jessica and I went to breakfast the next morning at about 8:30. Believe it or not, I had a hard-boiled egg and pita, hummus, and falafel for breakfast (no veggies). Low budget but fairly tasty. There was nothing to drink, though luckily I had a water bottle in my backpack. During breakfast, Jessica and I sat with an Israeli Conservative Jew (and were later joined by Bob). This Jewish woman gave Jessica and me a primer of what different kippot/clothes signify in Israel and what you can learn from someone by looking at what they dress. From what I recall:
  • black, velvet kippah = ultra-orthodox (with the clothes to boot)
  • non-black knit kippah = (modern) orthodox
  • big kippah that fits entirely over the head = modern religious (goes for men or women)
  • small knit kippah = raised religious but might not fully participate in those circles anymore
  • no kippah = secular OR "kippah in the back pocket" (the latter even more of an option if you have a beard)
  • a mixture of any of these categories = "outsider" to a specific group
There are, of course, multiple variations but this was, as I said, a primer.

After breakfast, we went to the conference room for "The Jewish Perspective" on the Binding of Isaac. A rabbi from a nearby community (black beard, Sephardic accent, non-black knit kippah) made the following points about the story without running through the basic plot or characters of the story but more or less just jumped right in. (He was speaking in Hebrew, so while I believe that I got everything, I may have missed a few points.)

1. A believer is willing to sacrifice himself if there's a need. Similarly, he would rather die than go against his most basic principles (which would entail killing, engaging in illicit sexual acts, or committing idolatry). But, what if he's asked (by God) to sacrifice someone else to preserve these basic values, especially if that person is his son who represents the entire Jewish future? Of course, the sacrifice itself would both support and contradict the basic values: while remaining true to God, one would be mimicking the idolaters who practiced human sacrifice.

2. Abraham was promised that he would be the founder of a strong nation. Going through with the sacrifice of his future would be working against God's previous word. There seems to be a choice between valid options here, and any normal person would therefore choose what was easier and more comfortable for himself.

3. God doesn't want Isaac to be sacrificed; rather he just wants to see Abraham's willingness to sacrifice all that's dear to him. We see this because in the text, Abraham is told to "offer up" his son rather than to "sacrifice" him.

Upon completion of this third, somewhat unrelated or significantly supported claim, the rabbi ended his short presentation. Yehudah announced that we should combine our discussion groups from yesterday with a second discussion group and ... discuss. As I said: laissez-faire.

When we finally got our large group together, we sat and talked for a little while. We reiterated that there are several similarities to the Quranic version of the text and reaffirmed everyone's commitment to keep lines of communication open. However, the conversation didn't get very deep. Every once in a while, I'd try to get a more personal question in, but by the time it was translated into Arabic, no one wanted to answer. Once or twice, Bob answered my question, and that seemed to satisfy everyone. In-depth conversation was very difficult in this group setting.

Someone suggested we go outside into the sun (remember the deep-seated cold), and we did that. However, as soon as we got outside, our "translator" started taking various pictures of our group until one of the Israeli students insisted we sit down and continue the conversation. Once we were outside we had a bit more luck. Bob brought up some thoughts about sacrifice being a metaphor for getting in touch with our deeper selves, but no one wanted to reflect on this. There were several side conversations in Arabic or Hebrew, and while normally this would have frustrated me, I kept reminding myself that the point of this encounter is not to discover the hidden meanings of the Akeidah (which I think was a poorly-chosen topic) but rather to get Israelis and Palestinians talking to one another and getting to know one another as human beings. This was definitely happening despite the derailment of conversation, and when we broke for coffee, I was much less dissatisfied than I otherwise might have been.

Jessica and I checked out of our room during the coffee break, and when we came back, it was time for "the Muslim perspective" on the Binding. The speaker they had arranged for "the Muslim perspective" couldn't make it, so one of the Muslim participants had to pinch hit. This is what she reported (as translated into English by the Hope Flowers School representative):

1. Abraham's trials were harder than other prophets'.
2. Abraham didn't have children for 100 years and then Hagar gave him Ishmael.
3. Abraham had a vision to sacrifice his son.
4. Abraham told Ishmael and asked him what he thought. Ishmael told Abraham to do what he had to do.
5. Abraham was about to sacrifice Ishmael, but his knife stopped. God spoke through the angels and told Abraham that he had passed the test.
6. God sent a sheep for the sacrifice instead of Ishmael.
7. As a reward for God's faithfulness, God granted him the birth of Isaac.
8. To this day, a sheep is slaughtered on Eid al-Adha (which is this Tuesday!), the holiday remembering Abraham's faithfulness. (1/3 of the sheep is retained by the slaughterer, 1/3 goes to the family, and 1/3 goes to the needy.)

Upon coming home, I've done some extra research. Here are the relevant verses from the 37th surah of the Quran:

"37.100": My Lord! grant me of the doers of good deeds.

"37.101": So We gave him the good news of a boy, possessing forbearance.

"37.102": And when he attained to working with him, he said: O my son! surely I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice you; consider then what you see. He said: O my father! do what you are commanded; if Allah please, you will find me of the patient ones.

"37.103": So when they both submitted and he threw him down upon his forehead,

"37.104": And We called out to him saying: O Ibrahim!

"37.105": You have indeed shown the truth of the vision; surely thus do We reward the doers of good:

"37.106": Most surely this is a manifest trial.

"37.107": And We ransomed him with a Feat sacrifice.

"37.108": And We perpetuated (praise) to him among the later generations.

"37.109": Peace be on Ibrahim.

"37.110": Thus do We reward the doers of good.

"37.111": Surely he was one of Our believing servants.

"37.112": And We gave him the good news of Ishaq, a prophet among the good ones.

"37.113": And We showered Our blessings on him and on Ishaq; and of their offspring are the doers of good, and (also) those who are clearly unjust to their own souls.

Although it's not explicitly stated in the Quran, Muslim tradition holds that the "boy" in verse 101 is Ishmael. I'm not sure where the "midrashic" additions of the vision, the angels, and the sheep come in (but the sheep obviously holds as a strong tradition as evidenced in the holiday).

I was very interested in this version of the story, especially the gift of Isaac as the reward for Abraham's faithfulness. Unfortunately, all the Muslims in my discussion group seemed satisfied with the story as told with no need to further elaborate. I tried even harder to spark some in-depth religious conversation but was thwarted at every turn. People were chatting, sitting outside, and taking pictures so again, I wasn't entirely frustrated, but from a personal perspective, I feel I definitely could have learned more.

After I sat and listened to Arabic conversations for about five or ten minutes, Tomer moved over next to me and engaged me (in English!) in a conversation about Reform Judaism. We talked a lot about Reform Judaism, Israel, and Israeli education. Our conversation was terrific and shows that I was able to learn not only from Palestinians during this retreat!

Before lunch, I made my way to the conference room where Jessica's group had broken into smaller discussions. Jessica was talking one-on-one with a Palestinian history professor, and I joined them. She told him that she was studying Yiddish, and he perked up. He knew about Yiddish! Yiddish, he said, began in 1881 as a response to pogroms in Russia; since the Jews needed a way to communicate among themselves without being understood by the Russians and since they had been forced to live together in remote locations, they had and were able to create a language for use only among the Jews. When Jessica told the professor that Yiddish dates back to 1200, he was confused. He said that he'd read in a history of Judaism (or Zionism) that the language was created to confound the Russians. We insisted that that wasn't the case and pondered aloud the perspective of the book he'd read - was it a pro-Hebrew account denigrating the history of Yiddish? A loss in translation? (My thought is that he simply misunderstood what he had read.) After this slightly disorienting conversation, Jessica and I went to lunch.

There, we sat with one of the Christians who had been in Jessica's group. Apparently, they had been discussing the question of why bad things happen to good people - some in their group had said that such events are punishments (including Hurricane Katrina), and that made Jessica and this American Mennonite very uncomfortable. We talked about the issue and about the conference throughout lunch, and we had the pleasure of talking with Amy, a student from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College whom we had met while visiting Alanna and Rebecca in Philadelphia.

Following lunch was a drumming circle that was interesting and engaging. About a dozen drums had been rented, and the conference participants were encouraged to play them. As soon as I walked into the room, the drum-master pulled me into the center of the drums and got me to start dancing. I had no idea what do to, so I kind of clapped my hands and walked in a circle. A tall Palestinian joined me in the center, and I followed his lead for a minute (he was doing a kind of male form of belly dance without the belly) before exiting the circle. I wasn't nearly as embarrassed as I would have expected.

This tall thin Palestinian seemed to feel comfortable taking charge of the situation. He danced a lot in the middle of the drums (at one point joined by a female Israeli student who was able to dance as well as he), and when he was done dancing, he took over the lead drum. Certain Palestinians tried to lead songs with the drums, and while that worked for a little bit of time, it eventually died out. Jessica was loving the drum, and I got into it a little, too. While the music wasn't great and people didn't exactly feel like they were creating rhythm together, we were all in the same situation together, and no one stopped smiling for the hour that we were drumming. People were taking pictures and movies all over the place, and in general, everyone seemed excited to have this inter-cultural opportunity.

The drum circle came to a close, and several Palestinians left. The musician who had been in my discussion group shook my hand and gave me four kisses - a remarkable and touching gesture! A fair number of Israelis and other Palestinians had already left as well, so we were down to about half our original number by this point. There was still about an hour before the next part of the retreat, so Jess and I found a corner to work on some crossword puzzles. At one point, the Conservative woman who had given us the kippah lesson told us that there were Shabbat candles we could light if we were so inclined, and we did so on our own. After finishing our second crossword, we went back into the conference room for prayers.

We started with Kabbalat Shabbat, led by a Hebrew University student. Several Muslims watched us pray with hushed voices and minimal spirit; I was somewhat embarrassed, but then I recalled that this is the Judaism that most of their neighbors experience. The silent prayer, the songs that people half-heartedly join in on - that kind of prayer is far from foreign in Israeli synagogues. I wish we could have shown them terrific religious leadership and real, meaningful prayer, but it wasn't to be - and this perhaps was more educational.

Then, six Muslim men prayed and we were allowed to witness. It was explained to us that before any of the five daily prayers, a Muslim must wash his hands, arms, feet, face, hair, behind his ears, and his hands again unless there's been nothing to break his cleanliness (going to the bathroom, sleeping, etc.) since his last prayer. Women prayer as men do but standing behind the men. One of the men stood in front and led the prayers, which lasted about ten minutes. Afterwards, I spoke briefly with the prayer leader and learned that anyone can lead prayers, but he has to have the relevant passages of the Quran memorized. Generally, among a group of Muslims, the most knowledgeable leads the prayers.

Our conversation was interrupted by Yehudah inviting everyone to participate in or witness the Ma'ariv service, which again was fairly lackluster. All this aside, though, I think that sharing a prayer space was incredibly important on a theoretical level, especially as this was the first time many of the participants had seen prayer of the others. As prayer in itself can be very intimate, I was glad that we were able to open up to one another even if the prayer itself wasn't that meaningful for the individual participants. (And really, who am I to determine whether the prayer was meaningful for anyone else? I could be the only one who wasn't satisfied with the prayer experience!)

After prayers, we had closing remarks wherein everyone shared a few sentences about their experience. Everyone had very positive things to share, and my strongest sentiment was joy at seeing everyone's smiles, especially during the drum circle. A Jewish Israeli shared that the entire retreat could be summed up by the four-kiss farewell given to him by our Palestinian musician, and in many ways, I agree with him. We were asked to brainstorm about the next retreat (this is, apparently, the first in a series of four), and several of the Palestinians strongly advocated to meet in Jerusalem to further explore the prayer spaces of each of the religions. Yehudah said he'd look into it, and personally, I think it would be incredible.

During dinner, Jessica and I made sure to sit with some Palestinians. I'd been trying to have mixed seating for every meal, but self-segregation was a powerful force. I saw a few Palestinians eyeing our chairs at the "Palestinian table," but we held our ground - and it was a good thing we did! One of them spoke very good English and engaged us in a lot of conversation.

We learned that this woman--let's call her Manab--volunteers at a cultural center where handicapped women make hand-crafts to sell. She studies social work or something like that and works very hard in school, though she wishes she had more time to devote to the handicapped women. Sahib shared more artwork and poetry with us, and they were each interested to hear about our hobbies. I told them that I loved to act, and they asked for a sample. Put on the spot, I could only think to recite a few stanzas of The Raven, which I'm sure they didn't understand (though I know they could see that I was definitely playing a character of some sort). Jessica said that she likes to sing, and they asked her to demonstrate. She began singing Autumn Leaves and immediately the entire table got silent and applauded when she was finished. She was an instant hit! They asked her to sing again, and she obliged them - though this time she was recorded by two cell phones! Manab told her she could make a career out of her singing, and everyone, of course, agreed.

We told jokes (I told a joke that Rabi had heard in Hebron) and laughed a lot, shared pictures, and entirely enjoyed one another's company. The same Israeli who had shared his reaction to the kiss-farewell played the harmonica and led some bodily-healing exercises - everyone was bouncing around and massaging their faces. Sahib showed me some magic tricks, and I showed him one. It was a terrific time! This was by far the best part of the entire conference. Sadly, all of the Hebrew U. students and most of the other Israelis were still talking at the "Jewish table," totally missing out. But, I don't think the effect was lost on the Palestinians.

Jessica and I were asked if we knew how to play the cardgame Tricks, and sadly we didn't. We were, however, invited to watch four of the Palestinian men play, and we gladly accepted. Having watched the game for about twenty minutes, I can tell you the very basic gist, but I have no idea what the individual rules are. The game seemed extraordinarily complicated, but the men played with carefree ease and lots of laughs. Jessica and I watched until our ride arrived to take us home. We said good-bye to the Israelis and to the Palestinians, shook many hands, grabbed a cookie for the road, and headed out.

The ride home was fairly uneventful except for our being asked to pull over at the checkpoint into the Jerusalem area. Jessica and I had thought to bring our passports, and I was extremely relieved that we had them (it's illegal not to carry ID in Israel), though thankfully we didn't need them. The glove box and trunk of our car were inspected, though of course nothing was discovered. The driver was supposed to take us to the original meeting point from which we had departed, but since the other two people who were supposed to be in the car had arranged to leave earlier, we were able to work out paying him 20 shekels to drive us to our apartment (which worked out incredibly well for us). We got home at about 10:45 pm on Friday and immediately put on sweatshirts - we'd been cold for the previous 30 hours!

All in all, I think the retreat was an excellent opportunity. It could have been much more smoothly organized and operated without sacrificing any of the social opportunities, but for the most part, I think that the primary goal in my eyes (getting Israelis and Palestinians to enjoy one another's company so that they can extrapolate this feeling of acceptance to other members of the appropriate group) was met. I came in contact with some very interesting people, I learned some significant lessons about life in Palestine, and I became much more comfortable with Arab culture. Hopefully there will be follow-up opportunities that Jessica and I can attend. In the meantime, I'll file away all those Palestinian smiles in my memory and try to share them with those who need to hear about them in the months and years ahead.


Sheri said...

D---Thanks for posting such an enlightening and thougtful post! It has been wonderful reading about both of your experiences abroad. Love and miss you both!

Sheri :)
(and Josh!)

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