It was a beautiful sunny day and I had enjoyed an excellent journey on a faithful EGGED bus from Savidor Central to Jerusalem.
As is my wont, I approached the line of taxis opposite to where I had descended from the bus and there, a polite nicely groomed driver opened the door of his spotless, shiny black taxi for me. When I was safely ensconced in the front seat he asked me in Ivrit “Where to”?
“YMCA” I said and we set off.
In my mind, I always think of the “Young Men’s Christian Association”
I wonder if that occurs to everybody.?
I always chat up taxi drivers; they are the eyes and ears of society and as my driver is often an Arab in Jerusalem I look forward to gaining some insight as to how the non-Jewish residents feel about their city and the current political situation.
I felt comfortable and “at home” with him and although it was a brief client-customer relationship it set me up for the day ahead.
Arriving at the magnificent YMCA building I took a deep breath. It is stunningly impressive from the outside. Within its portals, the atmosphere is of tranquility, order, and history.
Inside however today, it was buzzing. As well as the usual quiet refined tourists who are somewhat different to the brash and half-clothed ones, one sees in Tel Aviv hotels, there were many excited attractive youngish people of many origins, gathering together on the terraces leading to the verdant lawns, surrounding the building.
Today YMCA was hosting the annual regional conference of ALLMEP -Alliance for Middle East Peace. Along the terrace were tables colourfully displaying, not souvenirs and homemade cookies but with pamphlets and materials, depicting the aims of the many and varied organisations represented. In fact, 150 people from 65 NGO’s were taking part.
Doubi Schwartz, Regional Programme Director of ALLMEP was with a microphone in hand, introducing participants who in turn briefly explained whom they represented and at the same time invited the crowd to visit their tables for materials and more information.
Thus the scene was set and the actors all of us there soon became acquainted with each other.
I noticed two very pretty young women who looked as though they were English and approached them. As an older person, I find it easy to chat people up and break down barriers and this time I was especially surprised. Their names were displayed on labels which we all acquired when we registered, to make it easy to identify each other, as was mine.
The word LAMBETH stood out. I being from London originally, know where Lambeth is and also that the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest priest in the land, is Lambeth Palace.
I was therefore overwhelmed to learn that the Archbishop has set up a committee for making contact with groups such as ours, representing the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, in the search of a lasting peace in our region.
At the first opportunity, I introduced them to both Souli and Uri from Combatants for Peace so they could talk about the outstanding film “Disturbing the Peace “which has received worldwide acclaim and speaks for many of us. Hopefully, it will reach even more, now!.
We will keep in contact because I want to be able to show them on their next visit, what I call my Israel. The place that I love with all my heart and which I believe is the centre or the heart of the modern world.This land which is the source of beliefs of the three monotheistic faiths should be the ultimate example of humanity and respect for the other.
The conference was opened by Ambassador Nickolay Mladenov, the Key Note speaker and is the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. He addressed the positive contribution of Balkan countries, who had undergone turbulence and difficult times and are finding their way to creating a better and more tolerant society.He set the tone away from shaming and blaming but to genuinely keep on track to ending the conflict.
Then there was general discussion which did not ignore the unease in which interaction with each other through civil society confidence building, is seen as “normalisation” However without it, one cannot determine what the people themselves desire and not what successive leaders and governments have imposed upon them.
There was also a representative from Ireland who explained that even if the pact between the warring and terrorist factions in Northern Ireland is not yet perfect it proves that even feuds of hundreds of years can be dealt with in a level-headed and a humanitarian way which does not succumb to weakness and impotency.
We, of course, had a lunch break where the food was delicious, with respect shown to those who were kosher or vegetarian.
The last panel and inciteful closing remarks by Huda Abuarquob, Regional Director ALLMEP, included Gershon Bashkin and Anat Reisman Levy who presented an academic point of view, was again moderated by Joel.
Gershon gave an impassioned speech. Coming from a man with so much experience in the field, it was received by the audience with equal passion and expressed the true meaning of this conference.
Opinions from members of the audience at the end were heightened by the powerful statement of Ashraf from “Seeds of Peace” a native of Haifa who addressed the issue of Israeli Arabs or Palestinian/ Israelis. He said in perfect English(his Ivrit too, far better than mine) that he is sure that everything will change if a solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is settled. However, there is still the outstanding issue of the total recognition of those of the Arab community, who remained after the War of Independence and who have until now not found their true place, in the land of their forefathers.
This, in my opinion, was a fitting end to an exhilarating day. Even if all the good intentions are not fulfilled and still seem out of our reach, the camaraderie and mutual commitment of people from all over the world, to those of us who live and breathe THE LAND, cannot be denied. Think about it we do live”in the heart of the world” we are privileged as no others and have a responsibility to stop the heartbreak!
At this time of our Festival of Freedom, we cannot be immune.
Hag Sameach, Happy Easter!