Several weeks ago, our group went to a small meeting near the Old City of Jerusalem. It was a gathering between the different faiths of Jerusalem, curiously hosted by a Finnish Church.
Its purpose was to bridge the gap between the different religious groups of the city, to improve the relations between the Jewish majority and Muslim and Christian minorities. A relationship riddled with a palpable tension that any observant inhabitant can feel as they walk through the holiest city on earth.
Myself, two other students, and our wonderful Resident Director, Monica, were seated at a table with several Jerusalemites. As a whole, there were three Arab Muslims, two jews, two Christians, and a Spiritualist all sitting around waiting to delve into a potentially touchy discussion.
After several slightly awkward minutes of introduction, we talked more candidly about our experiences. Due to a language barrier, between each piece translations were necessary as some of the participants did not speak enough English, nor did we all speak enough Hebrew or Arabic. Each person recounted their story, or perhaps just a snippet of it, explaining their reasoning for showing up to an event like this. There were two stories in particular that stood above the rest, tales we all agreed we could only find in this faceted region.
His mother was pregnant with him when the 1967 War broke out. A six-day conflict that resulted in over tens of thousands of casualties and massive land gains for Israel. On the first day of the war, his pregnant mother walked from their village near Jerusalem all the way to the Jordanian border, a distance of approximately forty-three miles. There she waited several more days until the fighting stopped. Once the conflict waned, she walked back, finally giving birth to her son in the modern-day West Bank as soon as she arrived.
Ever since that destructive war, he heard nothing but hate for the Jewish people. This enmity only grew as many more Palestinians were forced to live within Israeli authority. It was under this authority that he was required to take Hebrew classes.
Constantly, he heard about the Jewish people’s monstrous character. But at a young age, he noticed a discrepancy in what people said, and what he saw. Every day he would go to his Hebrew class taught by a Jewish teacher. And though she was Jewish, to his surprise, she was delightful. She was caring for her students, even though they were Arab, and she was Israeli.
And every day he would return home from school to hear people discussing the conflict. At times describing their animosity for Israelis. And he never could connect their rhetoric with the wonderful teacher he had. He realized what they were saying wasn’t true, that Jews were all so bad, it couldn’t be. For she was a Jew but was nothing like what some had described her people as.
From then onwards, he decided he would make his mind up on who is good and bad. Just because they are Palestinian does not mean they are good or right, and being Jewish in no way makes them evil. So that’s why he started to come to the meetings. He wanted to meet the other side, to get to know the people that are supposedly the enemy. Now he has a job as a bookkeeper and is putting his son through Hebrew University, an institution where Jews and Palestinians sit in class side by side. And he continues to come to the meetings.
A man approached our table nearly halfway through our meeting. He was Texan in Israel on business. Back in the United States, he runs a non-profit that’s working for a peaceful resolution on the conflict. Naturally, his job requires him to travel to the region often, cooperating with both sides. Recently, much of his work is in the Gaza Strip. He is assisting in the opening of a cancer hospital in the war-stricken area. Due to the constant strife and the Israeli blockade, cancer treatment is virtually unavailable, making diagnosis a death sentence.
His first time going through the border was as difficult as one would expect. Traversing passed Israeli security, then Fatah (the major Palestinian political party) security, and finally Hamas security. Passing through the final checkpoint, his entire party was halted. Hamas, a violent terrorist organization in the eyes of the United States and many of its allies, was suspicious of the American and his friends. Detaining them for hours, he was questioned and many of his belongings were confiscated, including a gift of medical tools intended for the doctors at the hospital. Following more harassment, they were finally allowed through.
After his short stay, the Texan was saying his goodbyes to new friends and colleagues in Gaza. Midway through, the room went silent. An Arab man walked through the door and instantly commanded the attention of the room. Curious to who he was, the Texan inquired to find this man was the head of security for Hamas. The Arab man soon approached the Texan, looked him in the eye, and informed him that he was the one responsible for all of his troubles while crossing the borders. For the last several days, he had been watching the American and his party with suspecting eyes. And after it all, he wanted to say he was sorry. He told the American that it was clear he was a good man, and that he was only there to help. He brought in the gifts he had confiscated and returned them to their rightful owners. In the end, the Texan and the Arab man shook hands, the party assured problem-free passage from then onward. Several trips later, the Texan has entered and left with ease. He will soon establish a hospital that will likely save thousands of lives.
There is a weary feeling in Jerusalem. An understandable tension. There is both forced and self-imposed segregation, ignorance, and at times a conspicuous divide. And with this, studying here is not always the most comfortable. The politics of the people can wear on you. For myself personally, the division does not seem natural, nor familiar. But that night I left with several snippets of hope. Hope in the people we met, but more so in the affirmation that there are people who are out there, working for a better mindset and a better community.
It is easy to paint a picture to dehumanize a person. To make Jews seem cruel for their control, or perceived terrorists as monsters incapable of empathy, and regret. But these stories and these people can allow us to peer beyond the falsifying shell of religion and ethnicity and realize there are more than the divisive labels imposed on ourselves and one another. They are the stories we discussed for the rest of the night afterward. Because they gave us hope that people can choose to pay attention to the kindness of a teacher, or the apology of a rebel. Not only the negative headlines or the loud minority. It is a hope for a better community, a more loving community, an understanding between these different but similar groups. The people we sat with were working towards this vision by telling their stories, talking to us about their dreams and wishes, and by just showing up to this meeting. And I think they are making a good start.
Jon Stormer Pezzi is a Global Politics major with an Arabic and Poverty and Human Capability Studies Minor at Washington and Lee University. He studied abroad with IFSA at the Diversity and Coexistence program in Jerusalem, Israel in Fall 2018. He served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.