Grassroots Jerusalem: Fasting for Peace with Jews and Muslims in the Holy City

When I worked at the National Library of Israel, I found a book of photographs depicting the graffiti covering the giant concrete slabs that make up part of what is known to some as the ‘security fence’ and to others as the ‘separation wall’. In big white letters someone had spray painted ‘we are not enemies’. These words haunted me. I wanted to meet the person living on the other side of that wall who wrote that. 10511235_466861803448962_6692157421205303285_n So last week, amidst all the photos and videos of conflict on my Facebook stream, when I saw the word ‘life’ written in Hebrew, Arabic and English and underneath the tagline ‘Fasting Together Jews and Arabs Choose life’, I felt called to respond. Organized through the Choose Life community, Jews commemorating the 17th of Tammuz by fasting all day, were going to break bread with Muslims who had also been fasting in observance of the 18th day of Ramadan.

CaptureOne of the main facilitators of the gathering was Eliyahu McLean. An Orthodox Jew and veteran peace worker who despite having recently survived an attack two weeks ago on his bus as he was traveling from Safed to Jerusalem refused to turn to hate. He wrote on Facebook:

“I can never forget the Arab mob that rained rocks and molotov cocktails on the bus filled with men, women and children I was traveling in through Wadi Ara last Sat. night…the real enemy here is not the Arabs, or the Jews, the Zionists or Hamas, but the sitra achra, the satan, the power of the chaos. I recall my late teacher, Rabbi Menachem Froman’s call to the Palestinian leadership that now is the the time for a shared jihad for peace, a Jihad against the devil that makes the children of Abraham hate one another, and forget we are one family. To this direction, I invite anyone anywhere to join the “Choose Life” fast on Tuesday, a shared Jewish-Muslim fast day- the 17th of Tammuz and Ramadan.”

So yesterday, I walked to the Old City of Jerusalem hoping to encounter voices from the other side of the divide that knew they were not my enemy. On my way I picked up some bottled water, tea and grapes in a grocery store that was located below ground, under many feet of concrete, and felt like a bomb shelter. I thought it was appropriate for the occasion.

The gathering was held in a garden located at the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development . Surrounding by lush grass and blooming trees the venue felt like a little piece of Gan Eden. Watching Jews, Muslims, and Christians gather in a circle in Jerusalem was refreshingly outside my comfort zone.
gathering 1

We went around the circle introducing ourselves. For me, just listening to Muslim women wearing hijabs tell me their names after spending years seeing women dressed just like them walk by me and never speaking to them was remarkable. At 8pm a loud boom announced the Ramadan fast was over, a little more than ten minutes later, the Jewish fast was over as well. My inner cynic said this gathering was not really accomplishing anything, but as I watched Jews and Muslims eating and talking together in Jerusalem, I knew this story unfolding before me was a living higher vision in many ways more real and important then the endless reporting about Jews and Muslims fighting.

gathering 2I spoke with Zidan Zhuhan, an English teacher in Abu Gosh as well as Muslim and Jerusalem native he told me, “I am here tonight because I think this is like a glimmer of hope that has left among the peoples of this area… I hope {with} this kind of gathering in the midst of turmoil and bloodshed we can send a message to the outer world that peace among people can be achievable, can be doable, provided that people meet each other eye to eye, face to face. They can talk to each other because without talking and meeting each other the divide stays there and there will be no opportunity for bridging the gap among the two nations who are destined to live on this piece of land.”

In so many ways, the conflict here in Israel is such an unquestioned given, that it is easy to forget that it is man made and therefore can be just as easily unmade. That we as people have the power to make peace on a grassroots level. For me, this gathering was an example.

gathering 3Handing out water to the thirsty participants was Allesandro Magnsasco. Speaking about the gathering and the ICSD he said “Most problems here, people just clash head on, and so what this organization does that I love so much is that we help people find middle ground in terms of looking around you and saying ‘this is what’s happening and we need to fix it’.

Here in the crucible of Jerusalem, where physical and spiritual fences often demarcate the perimeter of identity, when the heat turns up, the chemistry between the ingredients can sometimes be explosive. From what I see on the news, Israel often appears to look like one big explosion. But appearance is not reality and the ‘real world’ is often a toxic fear fantasy made for TV that creates negative self fulfilling prophecies.

This gathering for peace between Jews and Arabs was the change I wanted to see. It’s true that it was just a bubble, but it was and is a bubble that can grow and get bigger. If conflict in the Holy City ripples outward globally, than imagine what would happen if peace could be made here in Jerusalem. The messianic dream of world peace would no longer seem so improbable. As I sat chanting ‘Shalom’ and ‘Salaam’ towards the end of the gathering with my Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters I got a little taste of it. May we see it in our days.

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