As we approach “Jerusalem Day” – which takes place officially this Wednesday, May 24, 2017– I have been searching for hope in the face of much despair, as our partisan politicians turn Jerusalem Day into a super-nationalist/”religious” day of denying the existence of the other, i.e. the Palestinians who now represent almost 40% of the citizens of this “holy” city. I have lost trust in many of our politicians when it comes to recognizing the realities in Jerusalem, including our mayor, Nir Barkat, who is becoming more right-wing all the time, as he seeks to become a national politician in the Likud party, using his job as mayor of the city as a stepping stone to become Prime Minister one day.
Accordingly, I was grateful when one of my daughters sent me a link to a wonderful new website called “Fifty Reasons to Hope“, which has been prepared by a coalition of organizations known as “This is Jerusalem”. This is a wonderful initiative by a group of people and organizations which promote pluralism and promise in Jerusalem. Among other things, this site offers 50 short videos of people and programs in Jerusalem who are doing important work to create a positive atmosphere in this troubled city which is in desperate need of people who recognize “the other” and include him or her in our consciousness.
Among my favorite video clips were the ones of Rabbi Beni Lau, who is the most outstanding and reasonable modern orthodox rabbi in Israel, and one featuring Fr. Russ MacDougall (who is mistakenly called a rabbi on this site!), rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, who is one of the leaders of the excellent interreligious project known as “Praying Together in Jerusalem”, which is bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims to pray for peace separately and together once a month, and the Jerusalem Teachers’ Room, a project which brings Jewish, Muslim and Christian teachers together for a year on an educational journey in which they share their stories.
Why is it important to keep hope alive in this city?
First of all, despite the fact that Jerusalem has been “reunited” for the past 50 years, it remains very much a divided city in practice. Jews live in their neighborhoods and Palestinians live in theirs. Our children mostly go to school separately (except for the Peace Kindergarten at the Jerusalem International YMCA on King David St., and the Hand-in-Hand School). While Jews and Palestinians may interact in the work place, they general do not interact socially or culturally.
Secondly, the disparity in economic conditions between “East” (Palestinian) and “West” (Jewish) is unbelievable. Most (82%) Palestinians in this city live at or below the poverty level. The infrastructure (schools, housing, streets, sidewalks, parks) in the Palestinian neighborhoods has consistently and deliberately been neglected by the Jewish government (combination of municipality and state) for the past 50 years in a shameful and counter-productive fashion that ought to be embarrassing to all Jews in Israel and around the world. It is absolutely reprehensible. Just to give you one glaring example, I learned this week from attending a conference of an organization called Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), that there are over 1000 parks in West Jerusalem and only 14 in East Jerusalem. Another small reason for hope is that Bimkom staff is working on a project to build some community parks in a few neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, in cooperation with local Palestinians there, to give some micro-hope at a very local level.
Finally, the political situation in Jerusalem is disappointing to the point of disastrous on the macro level. As part of the Jerusalem Day events, Israeli politicians will give lip service to an eternal Jerusalem that must be only ruled by Jews forever and ever, especially in honor of the visit of President Trump to the holy city. Not only will it be nauseating but counterproductive, since everyone involved in what used to be called “the peace process” (does anyone remember that?!?) knows that Jerusalem must be shared by Palestinians and Israelis. For example, all rational people involved in peacemaking in these parts (there aren’t too many left!) know that moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem will only lead to more violence and is a very negative idea, which would only put a final nail in the coffin of the peace process, at the same time that we are awaiting a miracle in the form of the “ultimate deal” promised by the new American president! (It should only happen!)
In the light of all these major problems, it is vital to keep hope alive by recognizing people and institutions that do this on a daily basis. During my 25 years, as a peacebuilder as director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI)—which served as the Israel chapter of an international organization known as Religions for Peace—I was often asked by people how I could keep going in the light of so much bad news and negative developments. I responded to their question with a question: what should I do? Give up? Submit to despair? Throughout more than two and a half decades, I refused to give in to “the situation”. Rather, I saw it as my responsibility to endeavor to keep hope alive by small gestures of reconciliation via educational, cultural and religious programs which promoted peaceful relations between people
Congratulations to “This is Jerusalem” for giving us reasons to hope. Together with my family, I will join you and hopefully thousands of others in Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon on “Jerusalem Day” this week to march in solidarity for a more peaceful, pluralistic and positive Jerusalem ( as an alternative march to the noisy ultra-nationalistic and ultra-religious one that dominates the city on this day).