During the summer, a group of students from Hamburg University joined the Elijah Interreligious Summer School and Training Institute in Jerusalem. They stayed at Ecce Homo in the Old City and each morning they left via the Damascus Gate to join us in the New City at the Swedish Theological Institute, where the program was held.
The cynics among us will be surprised to hear that in the two weeks that they were with us, they did not witness a single incident of violence at the Gate. This surprised them, too. They had been expecting trouble. Instead, they saw a bustling market – at least, later in the day it was bustling; in the morning, it was still a bit sleepy. And nobody took too much notice of them.
Things were not quite so “uneventful” when, as part of the program, they were taken by a guide to the Temple Mount and to see the outside of al-Aqsa. To anyone looking, the Elijah group consisted of Jews and Christians (who was to know that there was also a Buddhist among them?) and the security guard took some pleasure in bullying the young women, who were modestly dressed, and humiliating the young men with them, by suggesting that their reasons for visiting were not appropriate. Of course, he might have been showing off to his son, who had accompanied his father to work on this day in the summer vacation. Whatever his motives, this guard who overstepped his duties left a nasty taste in the mouths of those on the visit.
The following evening, a group of (female) students decided to visit Mea Shearim, just one block from where we were studying. After the unpleasantness of the day before, they consulted me about their dress and I assured them that it was appropriate. Apparently, no amount of concealing clothing could cover the fact that these were “foreign” girls. As they walked the streets, little boys shouted “shikzes” at them and spat at the ground in front of them. To the students, the experience was the same as the previous day – they were victims of racism and the perpetrators were all the residents of this Land. They might have been children but it is clear that they had the tacit approval of at least some of the adults they consider authoritative.
In both the unpleasant situations in which our young guests found themselves, children were being taught that it is acceptable to exploit positions of power. I expect that the adults around them would deny this but the messages of how one should (mis)treat the “other” are being communicated, implicitly if not explicitly, and are being perpetuated into the next generation. It was enough to make the students cynical about the slogans of peace and the claims of religion as a source of peace that they had been hearing from their various teachers in the summer school.
Sadly, it is not just religious “extremists” who perpetrate prejudice and it is not just tourists who observe or experience it. Many living here are tiring of the fight for better values. Many are despairing of the political processes that are supposed to be bringing us closer to some sort of resolution to the conflict. They are cynical about the possibility of any accommodation of the needs of the multiple peoples who live here.
Luckily, there are still people willing to maintain a positive attitude and fight the war against cynicism.
Wednesday was the International Day of Peace and I had the privilege of attending an event, “From Inner to Outer Peace in the Holy City of Jerusalem,” a program on meditation in three traditions, hosted by the Abrahamic Reunion and featuring Elijah Interfaith Academy scholar, Sheikah Ghassan Manasra, and Christian and Jewish teachers and religious leaders.
In the round of introductions as to why we were here, one of the Palestinian students narrated how, when he was returning to his home in Bethlehem, a few weeks ago, passing through a check-point, a soldier asked him where he had been. He said he was returning from a Peace event and the soldier said, cynically, not to bother. He said that there would never be peace.
Another Palestinian from Jericho piped up. “The same happened to me this morning,” he said. “On entering Jerusalem this morning, I told a soldier I was on my way to an event for the International Day of Peace. He said it was a waste of my time.”
The first spoke up again. “But I had an answer. I asked the soldier, who was wearing a kippa, ‘Don’t you believe in G-d? Then you must know that one of the names of G-d is Peace. You cannot believe in G-d and not believe in Peace’.”
Two days after our students from Hamburg experienced humiliation at the hands of Jewish children, it was Shabbat. The students were invited to experience Friday night services in different communities and to have Shabbat dinner in Jewish homes. The warmth they experienced in these settings came close to erasing the unpleasant memories of the preceding days. Our prayers for Shalom were chanted with sincerity and our songs of praise to the God, Whose name is Peace, were genuine. There is nothing cynical or negative about Shabbat ; it is all about peace.
Being in an authentically religious environment was just the remedy that was needed in the battle with those who cynically are using their religious identity as an excuse for belittling others. Cynicism can be paralyzing. It is the opposite of hope. Authentic religion is all about hope.
In this week, when the entire Jewish world is reciting Selichot, I am hoping that those uttering the words of mercy, forgiveness and hope for peace will be bolstered in the battle against cynicism, their own or that of others – whether it be the abuse of power in the name of religion or the replacement of hope with negativity. It is a war we must win.