Last Friday afternoon, I attended a rare event for the times in which we live, in the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh, fifteen minutes west of Jerusalem. I was invited by Issa Jaber, a long-time friend and colleague, who is now the mayor of the town (as well as the co-chairperson of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel), to join a group of Jews and Arabs from the area in a “Sukkat Shalom”, a “gathering of peace”, in the beautiful garden known as “Bouston Abu Ghosh”.
The idea was to offer some hope for peace, after a long summer of war. It was an informal yet meaningful event, which brought together about fifty Arabs and Jews from Abu Ghosh and the kibbutzim, moshavim and Jewish towns in the area, as well as Jews from Jerusalem, like myself, and my colleague, Dr. Deborah Weissman, who serves as co-vice chairperson of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, as well as President of the International Council of Christians and Jews, and who, like me and Mr.Jaber, has been an educator for most of her professional life.
We were warmly greeted by Mr. Jaber, who referred to the famous Rabbi Hillel of Talmudic times when he said that we must hold such events in difficult times because “if not now, when?” Among other things, Mr. Jaber has served for many years as an officer in the non-profit organization known as “The Association for the Promotion of Tolerance and Coexistence in the Judean Hills”, which has existed, I learned, for almost 30 years by now.
He was joined by members of the nearby kibbutzim of Kiryat Anavim, Ma’aleh Hahamisha and Tzora, who all spoke of their decades of friendship and cooperation on educational and social projects and programs for the benefit of Jews and Arabs alike in the region known as “the Jerusalem Corridor.” This is a very unique place in Israel, where Jews and Arabs actually live in total harmony and mutual respect. “We respect each other,” Mr. Jaber said, “despite the differences among us.” Even the rabbi of the ultra-orthodox town of Telshe Stone, next door, sent a beautiful greeting, urging that this sukkah of peace should spread beyond this little region! Alevai—would that it would only happen!
I left the event wondering whether peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews within the state of Israel, as well as between Israelis and Palestinians in the region, is actually possible on a grander scale. I would like to believe that the answer is yes, but I am not always sure.
Within Israel, it is certainly possible. Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship do not live under occupation. Even if they suffer discrimination, they have full rights under the law. Much can be done –and should be done—to improve their situation, and coexistence is certainly possible.
However, peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians in the region is much more complicated, as we have seen from the horrible war in Gaza this summer. But here too, one must not give up hope that a peace agreement between the representatives of the Palestinian people and of the government of Israel can be reached.
Perhaps there is even some new hope emerging, with new coalitions forming (Israel, Egypt, other moderate Arab states and the united Palestinian government,), and with all kinds of good ideas finally coming to light, such as “reconstruction for demilitarization”. Both sides now have genuine interests at stake. Israel needs a demilitarized Gaza, so that its citizens in the South can live without daily fear of rocket attacks. And Gaza desperately needs to be rebuilt, so that its citizens will have places to live and some kind of normal life.
Now is the time for creative thinking—despite the ongoing mini-war of attrition with Hamas in Gaza — not only for practical reasons, but to keep the vision of peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis in our region alive.