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Abraham's Children - Traveling to the Holy Land

April 30, 2013:


What follows is the personal reflection of CTU’s Crown Ryan Professor of Jewish Studies, Rabbi David Sandmel.  Rabbi Sandmel was one of the CTU professors on an interreligious study trip to Jerusalem last January called “Abraham’s Children.”

In January of this year, I lead a trip to Israel, which is not an unusual thing for a rabbi to do.  This trip, however, was a little different; it was part of a graduate course called Abraham’s Children offered by the Catholic Theological Union, on whose faculty I serve.  My co-leaders were a Roman Catholic priest and world renown leader in Jewish-Christian relations, Father John Pawlikowski , a Muslim scholar and imam, Inamul Haq and a Catholic scholar of Islam, Scott Alexander.  The 25 students ranged in age from mid-twenties to seventy, about half were taking the course for credit; the rest were auditors.  And they were a diverse group: one Jew, two Muslims (one of them a hijab wearing Indian woman studying interreligious relations), two Protestants (one of them a Methodist minister from Ghana) and 20 Catholics (including a priest from Australia). Four of the Catholics are Hispanic.  Of the two Muslims, both happen to be of Indian origin. 

The course serves as an introduction to Judaism, Christianity and Islam and to interfaith relations.  It is one thing to teach this course in a classroom in Chicago; it is very different to teach it in Israel and in Palestine (which we also visited), where interfaith and intergroup relations are tightly enmeshed with so many aspects of life and politics, including, but not limited to, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  At our orientation session, I told the group that it was my goal that, at the end of the trip, they would be confused and frustrated.  Confused because what they thought from a distance to be simple had been shown to be maddeningly complex, and frustrated because they would understand that we could barely scratch the surface in a 10-day trip.

During our class time (three hours most mornings), my fellow professors and I explored topics like God, scripture and tradition, authority, and ritual in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The rest of the time we visited religious sites and met with leaders and activists from a variety of organizations. We heard from Jews, Christians and Muslims, both Palestinian and Israeli.

Though the focus of the curriculum is on the basics of the three traditions, the emphasis on interfaith relations, and especially the powerful impact of the people we met and the places we saw, defined the nature of our experience.  We were constantly exploring the boundaries between traditions, both their commonalities and differences, and the points of conflict between traditions and within them. We met people who live these issues daily.

Rabbi David Rosen, an orthodox rabbi and international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, talked about his yeshiva background, his service in the Israeli Defense Forces, and his journey to being perhaps the leading Jewish practitioner of interreligious dialogue in the world today.  He is a passionate advocate for the essential role religion must play in bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a nuance that politicians and government leaders seem to miss.  Had the iconic picture of Rabin, Clinton and Arafat on the White House lawn included Israeli and Palestinian rabbis, qadis, and priests, those efforts might have been more successful.  The public support and active endorsement by religious leaders in Israel and Palestine of any peace plan will play as essential role in insuring that any negotiated settlement or peace plan will be accepted by both populations.

Through the Interfaith Coordinating Council in Israel, representing 60 Israeli religious and educational institutions, we had the opportunity to speak with Ophir Yarden. Director of Educational Initiatives for the ICCI, Mohammed Dajani, head of the American Studies Program at al-Quds University in Jerusalem and founder of the Wasatia, a new movement of moderate Islam, and Sister Maureen Cusick, a Sister of Sion, a Catholic community committed to fostering Jewish-Christian relations.  They shared their different perspectives on the challenges of pursuing interfaith dialogue in the midst of conflict that seems, at the moment, to be far from resolution.

Anat Hoffman, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, described IRAC’s work promoting religious freedom and women’s rights; for example, the successful campaign to stop the segregation of women and men on public buses.  She also shared her experiences as a member of Women of the Wall, including her recent arrest and abuse by the Israeli police. Women of the Wall’s “central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”  The Western Wall is under the control of Orthodox religious authorities who have essentially turned the Wall into an Orthodox synagogue: men and women have separate sections, and women are not allowed to do any of the activities mentioned above. Once a month, on Rosh Hodesh (the new moon/first day of the month), the Women of the Wall hold a service in the women’s section at the Wall, of late resulting in arrests and a great deal of public exposure.  We later visited the Western Wall, understanding its significance as a symbol for Jews all over the world, but also informed by the current struggle over free access to Judaism’s holiest site.

We visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and Museum; some in the group had visited Yad Vashem or other memorials before; for others it was the first exposure to this history in any depth or detail.  We spent several hours with the group discussing the meaning of the Holocaust for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and its impact on all of us as people committed to interfaith dialogue.  

We attended Shabbat services at Kol Haneshama a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, where Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman warmly welcomed us.  In moments before the services began, one of our Muslim participants stood in on the side of the synagogue to recite her afternoon prayers, and then joined the group just before the Jewish service began.  After services, a group of rabbinic and education students from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Reigion joined us for dinner at our hotel and involved our group in a traditional Shabbat meal including Kiddush (sanctification of the Shabbat), netilat yadayim (washing of the hands), the blessing of the children (we borrowed a couple of kids from a family eating nearby) and motzi, (the blessing before food, recited over Challah on Shabbat)  as well as birkat hamazon (grace after meals) some zemirot (table songs), and a dvar Torah, a brief teaching about the weekly Torah portion.  Since everyone in our group defined themselves as religious (the one exception being the other Jew…), there was great openness to the experience of Shabbat. Indeed, that openness was apparent at all the religious sites we visited and customs or practices to which we were exposed. 

Hana Bendecowsky, from the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, expertly guided us through the Christian Holy Sites in the old city of Jerusalem and explained the intricacies of relations between the various churches at Christianity’s most important shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the complicated history of the “rules” by which the religious communities coexist cheek by jowl within the walls of Jerusalem.  Later on, one of the priests in our group celebrated mass in a chapel at the Holy Sepulcher. 

We visited the Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock with Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, who teaches at al-Quds University near Jerusalem, where, at a later meeting, he spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We toured the Abu Jihad Museum for the Prisoners Movement Affairs honoring Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.  An entire wall at the museum is filled with pictures of Palestinian prisoners.  It reminded me of a similar montage showing Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorist attacks.  I shared with some of the students the question I had been asking myself – which, if any, of the prisoners pictured had participated in terror attacks against Israelis.  Some of them had wondered the same thing.  We acknowledged once again the complexities and the challenge of competing narratives.

We toured the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and saw the spot where, according to tradition, Jesus was born.  Students at Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution whose student body is 70% Muslim, related their experiences and struggles to get an education under the occupation and the uncertainty of the economic and political future in the West Bank. We met with Dr. Geries Khoury, an Israeli Arab Christian who directs the Liqa’ Center in Bethlehem, which describes itself as a unique place of research, study and dialogue on the religious and cultural traditions, and daily life of the people of the Holy Land and the region. Dr. Khoury is one of the prime movers behind the Kairos Palestine Document, a Christian theological statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is, in my view, highly problematic.  It  calls for Christians around the world to support the Palestinian quest for independence and the end to the occupation.   While I resonate with its legitimate cry for justice, the document uses classical Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric and makes inflammatory statements about Israel.  I challenged Dr. Khoury on what I saw as some of the problems in the document.  He responded that some of the language in the document was unfortunate and should have been phrased differently.  Fr. Pawlikowski asked why no effort had been made to amend or correct those problems.  I think that the Kairos Document is a missed opportunity.  Its use of anti-Jewish rhetoric alienates many Jews and at least some Christians who otherwise would be sympathetic to Kairos Palestine’s message.  And now the document itself (which has been taken up by a number of Protestant denominations in the United States and elsewhere) has become a matter of contention in Jewish-Christian relations here and in Israel and Palestine.

As we traveled around the West Bank, we saw the separation barrier, or wall, or terrorist barrier, or apartheid barrier (choose your term…) from both sides, and we toured the South Hebron Hills.  Our guide was a young man from Shovrim Shtika, breaking the silence.  Breaking the Silence describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.”  During this tour, we visited the Jewish and the Arab Susya.  The Jewish Susya, established in 1986, sits on a hill with neat white buildings and red roofs, plenty of electricity and water. The Arab Susya is lower down; its residents live in makeshift shelters and caves.  There have been continued tensions between the Arabs and Jewish residents of the two Susyas.  The Arab village has been demolished several times.  They are prohibited by the Israeli authorities from building.  The Arabs have no access to municipal water or electricity.  They are prohibited from planting land they have farmed for generations and are prevented from using the water cisterns on which they have traditionally relied.  The Arab Susya is slated for demolition because the Israeli authorities claim the homes have been built illegally, and because there are plans to create an archaeological park around an ancient synagogue found on village land.  We visited the home of one of the residents of Arab Susya in his tent; he described his life, his village’s struggles, and the support they received from Shovrim Shtika.

Our guide from Shovrim Shtika grew up in a religious Zionist home and remembers the day he was accepted into an elite paratrooper unit as the highpoint of his life.  But he also remembers that his rabbi taught him that a Jew should walk around with question marks around his head.  The questions he asked himself about his service in the West Bank, based on the Jewish values on which he had been raised, about his own actions serving in the West Bank, led him to get involved with Shovrim Shtika as an act of Israeli patriotism.  Our group was overwhelmed by this young man, by his courage, by his honesty.  Several described him as prophetic.

We left the West Bank to visit Jaffa, the ancient city now part of the new city of Tel Aviv.  Jaffa’s population is diverse: Christian and Muslim Arabs, Jews, foreign workers, multi-generational families and gentrifiers.  We visited the Arab Hebrew Theater in Jaffa consisting of two theatrical groups that produce plays both together and apart in both Hebrew and Arabic, where we met with an Israeli Jew and an Israeli Arab representing the two theaters.  The "Local (Hebrew) Theater" continues its thirteen-year artistic tradition of working with both Jewish and Arab artists. The Arab Al-Saraya Theater of Jaffa has brought together Arab artists since it was founded in 1998.  In one memorable moment they described producing a play about the occupation in which Jews played the roles of Arabs and Arabs played the roles of Jews, and how that had affected the actors. 

We met an Israeli Arab Muslim woman, Amal Abusif, an educator and coexistence activist. Amal is pursuing a doctorate in education and conflict resolution at Ben Gurion University and is working on a project to bring Israeli Arab and Jewish human services professionals and educators together to help children deal with trauma.  Rabbi Miri Gold of Kehilat Birkat Shalom talked to us about growing up as a conservative Jew in Detroit, making aliyah to build Kibbutz Gezer, and eventually realizing that her Zionist journey was leading her to become the third Israeli woman ordained a rabbi.  She also spoke about her struggle in Israel’s Supreme Court to be recognized as a community rabbi and receive a government salary as Orthodox rabbis do.  Though the court ruled in her favor, the government has continued to balk and has yet to begin paying.

We were hosted by the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes at the ancient site of Emmaus, where according to Christian tradition, Jesus appeared to two of his disciples after his resurrection.  This small, international Catholic community describes its presence in Israel with these words:  “We come here to pray for the full Redemption of Israel and to work for the mutual understanding and reconciliation between Jews and Christians.” They are not missionaries and do not proselytize; rather, they celebrate the Jewish roots of Christianity, and mark the Jewish holidays. Every week they have their own kabbalat Shabbat celebration, they light Hanukah candles, and even build a sukkah.  I presented them with a copy of the recently published Jewish Annotated New Testament which they were very happy to receive (This commentary on the entire New Testament was written by a team of Jewish scholars, of which I am one!) This visit engendered an interesting discussion.  The idea of Christians adopting Jewish customs provokes different reactions, since it either approaches or crosses a boundary between the two traditions.  By observing Jewish rituals, is this community being respectful of Judaism, as they say they are, or is this an expropriation of Jewish culture, and merely another example of Christian insensitivity to Jews? 

For out final banquet, we ate at the restaurant of an Israeli Arab Orthodox Christian family I have known for over twenty years. The restaurant, located in Ramle, in a crusader era building on what used to be the main road from Jaffa to Jerusalem (Napoleon slept here!), was founded in 1948.  Restaurant Samir (it’s the best hummus in the Middle East, really!) is now run by the third generation, a young man who is also involved in starting a kindergarten for Jewish and Arab children in his community.

As I hope you have surmised from this brief summary, this was certainly not your typical Jewish or Christian pilgrimage to Israel.  We did not focus solely on the Biblical archaeological sites, the history and achievements of modern Israel or the fulfillment of the Zionist dream as might be the case with a synagogue trip or mission.  Nor did we retrace the life of Jesus while ignoring modern Israel and contemporary geo-politics altogether, as some Christian pilgrims do.  Nor did we focus only on the occupation and the settlements and Israel as the oppressor, as other Christian trips do.  Rather, we tried to show the range of views on some of the most difficult issues and realities of life in Israel and Palestine, and we tried to show just how complex these challenges are, as opposed to how they appear in the media or in the propaganda of advocacy of groups that support one side or the other.  And we tried to show how people of all faiths are joining together in difficult circumstances to promote a different vision.  In light of the interfaith focus of the trip, we could not have done otherwise.

There were, of course, lots of voices we did not hear and places we did not see.  This is partially because of time constraints; we could not do it all.  We might make some different choices when we run this program again.  But we made a conscious decision to focus on individuals and groups involved in interreligioius and intercommunal activism.  Recognizing that selectivity, the four faculty shared the responsibility to “problematize” what we heard, to offer historical context and introduce other viewpoints, and occasionally we wanted to challenge something that had been said.

So, for example, while the tour with Shovrim Shtika exposed the ugliest aspects of the occupation, it was important for the group to be able to place the occupation in its historical context: the occupation is the result of the 1967 Six-Day War and the subsequent multiple failures (refusals?) of first the Arab nations and later the Palestinians and the Israelis to achieve a negotiated settlement.  I presented the opinions of two American generals who believe, from a defensive military strategic perspective, in order to be able to defend itself, Israel needs to control the West Bank.  We talked about the origin of the settler movement, and the difference between ideological (this is Jewish land) and economic (this is more affordable housing) settlers. And I stressed that, though the occupation has to end, the solution does not rest in Israel’s hands alone, but has to be part of a negotiated settlement.  

Similarly, as we pondered the Women of the Wall or the situation of Reform and Conservative Judaism in the Jewish state, or the drafting of yeshiva students as an election issue, it became important to explain the origin of the official rabbinate and the relationship between state and religion in Israel, which is quite different than in the Unites States.  (Our trip coincided with the last final days of Israel’s recent election, adding another dimension to our experience.) Israel’s parliamentary system, in which smaller parties can wield disproportionate power, and its lack of a constitution, play a role.  Orthodox political parties were part of the Jewish community before the founding of the state, but their numbers were comparatively small.  Some of the left-wing socialists who dominated Israel at the founding of the state believed that Jewish religious practice was a necessary but unnatural reaction to life in the diaspora and that, once the Jewish people had their own state, religion would be obsolete and would fade away.  Orthodoxy did not die out as expected, instead the population and their political power has grown and tension between the religious and non-religious communities constitutes one of the most pressing social problems in Israel today. Though Rabbi Gold and Anat Hoffman are part of that tension, we had to point out that for must Israelis neither Reform Judaism nor the right of women to worship at the Western Wall is a particularly important issue; they are much more concerned about the ultra-orthodox “sharing the burden” of army service.

I made sure we studied Israel's Declaration of Independence, a document whose values still need to be actualized in Israel (a country only 65 years old), just like the values of America’s founding documents still need to be actualized here.  Many of our speakers made repeated references to Israel’s Supreme Court, and its crucial role in protecting the rights of women and minorities, and the fact that is regularly rules against the government on all kinds of issues, including ordering changes in the path of the separation barrier.

On a couple of occasions, I spoke with the group about what was said by one or another of the Palestinian presenters with which I disagreed or that I found problematic.  One speaker stated that the security fence was a complete sham; that its only purpose was to take land from the Palestinians and that the reason that terrorist attacks had subsided was purely the result of a decision made by the Palestinian Authority. I later reiterated this to the group and shared some statistics about terrorist deaths in relation to construction of the barriers.  I told them that I believed the PA had played a positive role in reducing terror and that the path of barrier was could not be explained purely in security terms, but that I was disturbed by the dismissal of the role of security altogether.

We made no attempt to whitewash the many problems in Israeli society, nor did we focus on problems to the exclusion of other aspects of culture and society.  I think our group came away understanding the Jewish people’s right to national expression in its ancient homeland and that, despite the problems, there is much to be admired about Israel. Finally, I think they came away with vivid memories of the many, diverse individuals in Israel and Palestine who share a vision of religion and national coexistence and peace.

I also often spoke to the group, not just as the problematizer or the professor, but also as a passionate Jew and a passionate Zionist.  I shared with them my objections to certain policies and practices of the government of Israel; I was also clear about my deep attachment to the state and its people, and that my support of Israel, while not uncritical, is unshakable.

However, the most important voices that our group heard were those of Israeli Jews and Arabs, who are dedicating their lives and working together to build a better Israel.  Israeli Jews whose Zionist ideal is a state in which the rights of all are protected; Israeli Jews who view the continued rule over 1.5 million Arabs in the West Bank as the greatest threat to Zionism and to Israel’s survival.  Israeli Arabs (or Palestinian Israelis, as some are now calling themselves) who believe that there is value in being both Arab, Muslim or Christian, and Israeli citizens.  Palestinians who hope for a two-state solution and are willing to live in peace with Israel, even while they fear that that day will never come.  In the face of all the problems, these voices of commitment and passion and hope made, I believe, the deepest, most lasting impression.

What follows is the personal reflection of CTU’s Crown Ryan Professor of Jewish Studies, Rabbi David Sandmel.  Rabbi Sandmel was one of the CTU professors on an interreligious study trip to Jerusalem last January called “Abraham’s Children.”
Featuring: Rabbi David Sandmel