How does one keep up hope amidst so much despair?

This is a question that I am often asked by visiting groups to Israel, with whom I meet frequently, and I must admit, I ask myself the question too, especially lately.

With the collapse of the political “Peace Process” about 6 weeks ago, much despair and despondency about the future of our region has become part of our daily life in Israel and Palestine. And the kidnapping of three innocent Jewish teenagers—with the follow-up of the massive search for them in many places in the occupied West Bank in the last week—has only made the mood worse here, on both sides.

So where does one find some hope?

Well I found hope in two inspirational events that I attended last  week in Jerusalem.

The first one took place on Tuesday, June 17th , on the beautiful rooftop of the Museum on the Seam, a very special social justice museum, on the old border between Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem. It was an evening to mark the publication of a detailed survey of all the Palestinian neighborhoods in “East” Jerusalem, published by Bimkom — Planners for Planning Rights, an organization which helps Palestinians deal with local planning problems in their neighborhoods in sensitive and systematic ways. It wasn’t just the very clear description of the issues at hand that made this evening special. After all, most of us in the audience already knew that the Palestinians of Jerusalem have suffered systematic discrimination by the city of Jerusalem and the state of Israel over the last 47 years in every aspect of their lives. Now we know it in great detail.

The inspirational aspect of the evening lay in the fact that over 100 Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (about half and half) gathered peacefully in a beautiful setting in the center of Jerusalem in a spirit of harmony and hope, of cooperation and constructivism. Despite the ongoing challenges, everyone there was there in a positive spirit of friendship, fellowship, and forward thinking, with eyes and ears sensitized on how we can all improve life in Jerusalem for the benefit of all of her citizens.  It was a moment of hope, a flicker of inspiration, in a seemingly hopeless situation.

The other event took place yesterday at Congregation Kol Haneshama in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. A group of Jews and Muslims gathered to learn and dialogue with each other under the auspices of my organization, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.  This encounter was part of an ongoing series of meetings in which Israeli Jews and Muslims have been gathering for the past two years as part of a new project called Kodesh (Kolot Dati’im L’shalom—Religious Voices for Peace), which brings together 30 leading religious leaders, educators, academics, community leaders and journalists to study together, to discuss contemporary issues and to take action.

At this week’s session of Kodesh (this is the Hebrew word for “holy”), we studied with Professor Daniella Talmon-Heller of Ben Gurion University about the way the Koran and the Torah is read in each tradition. It was a fabulous and enervating discussion and dialogue. Everyone was involved. All of us were learning and sharing every moment. It was an intellectual and spiritual delight. And it happened right here in Jerusalem, without fanfare, without press coverage, without excitement. For those of us involved in this, it is simply a part of our ongoing professional and personal agendas.

But this session was special. It actually felt “holy”, unique, inspirational. We rediscovered how much we have in common and at the same time, ways in which  we are different. We listened actively and empathetically, towards the goal of developing genuine mutual understanding. Everyone in the group left the encounter with a good feeling and a sudden realization that this is the kind of dialogue we need to continue to engage in, despite the challenges in the surrounding environment.

So how do we keep hope alive? By persisting in dialogue and action; by demonstrating genuine empathy for the oppressed in our society; by continuing to demonstrate and believe that peaceful coexistence among Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, is indeed possible.