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In Tents of Meeting, Jews, Arabs Share Commonalities, Talk Peace

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Ibtisam Mahamid is wearing a long salmon-colored dress, a white head covering and a soft pink scarf adorned with shiny circles, embroidery and fringes. She kneels comfortably on the ground, speaking to a crowd about why Muslim law requires women to be accompanied by men when outdoors. “Back in the day,” she explains in Arabic, “traveling was very rough. You never knew whom you’d encounter on your path. Women needed to be protected from these dangers.”

The Jewish, Muslim and Christian crowd listens intently as Mahamid finishes her explanation and workshop leaders translate it into Hebrew and English.

The interfaith gathering is assembled in a tent called the House of Prayer — one of many billowing white shelters from the harsh summer sun set up across Park Mekorot Hayarkon in Petach Tikva — for the fifth annual gathering called “On the Way to Sulha,” an Arabic word meaning “reconciliation.”

The three-day festival, held this year in mid-July, is dedicated to building trust between Jews and Arabs through listening circles, workshops, musical performances and shared meals.

The gathering has opened hearts on both sides of the conflict, and in 2004, Al-Jazeera television — the most widely watched network in the Arab world — covered the event live, dedicating a 10-minute segment to peace efforts in Israel.

“In these times of conflict, there is a need for a safe place where we can encourage the meeting of the neighbors — Jews and Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis — eye to eye,” says Gabriel Meyer, a founding member of the festival. “We need a place where we can learn and appreciate each others’ pain, hopes, fears and traditions, beyond everyday political agendas.”

“Because of the hard situation the two peoples are in,” adds Elias Jabour, another founding member, “we need to bring the two peoples together to talk about our problems and to get to know each other, with the simple principle that peace is the solution to all our conflicts.”

Learning about each others’ religious traditions is one of the most powerful ways of connecting, asserts American-born Eliyahu McLean, the facilitator of the House of Prayer.

McLean invited representatives of each of the three major religions to share traditions from their faiths. Many participants were surprised by the commonalities.

“When we went to synagogue in Ethiopia,” says Rabbi Yosef Hadane, the chief rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Israel, “we didn’t begin praying right after we walked in. We took time to cleanse ourselves of daily thoughts and energy, so that we could open our hearts and purify ourselves before speaking to God.”

“Before going to sleep,” he continues, “we would forgive everyone in our lives, so that our hearts would be free of hate before we’d lose consciousness.”

Two Arab women in colorful dresses and white head scarves nod as Hadane’s words are translated into Arabic.

“It’s the same for us,” Fatima Al-Abadi says, smiling enthusiastically at the rabbi.

“I was surprised to hear that in Judaism you pray directly to God without someone in the middle, like a priest,” Al-Abadi says after the workshop. “That’s the same for us — and different from Christianity.”

Another tent where Jews and Arabs are gathered is for Bereaved Families Supporting Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance, where those who have lost loved ones meet to share their stories and make impassioned pleas to end the conflict.

“For bereaved-family groups on the right, these deaths become the reason not to leave the territories,” says Neta Shemesh, explaining why she got involved with the ongoing forum, also known as the Parents’ Circle. “I wanted to have my voice heard too. I was always for peace, but I felt it even more strongly after my mother’s death.”

In 1974, when Shemesh was 22, terrorists infiltrated Kibbutz Shamir, killing her mother and two other women, one of whom was pregnant. Shemesh also lost a brother during the Lebanon War a few years later.

The loss of loved ones also made Waji Tomizy, a Palestinian, more determined to make peace.

“If I seek revenge, my brother won’t come back. I’ll just create another bereaved family,” he says. “I understand what it does to a family to lose someone.”

During the holiday of Id al-Adha in 1993, Israeli soldiers came to Idna, Tomizy’s village. Children began throwing stones at them. In response, Tomizy says, the soldiers opened fire, killing three children — including his 13-year-old brother.

“It changed our holiday to one of memorial,” Tomizy says. “Now on the holiday, we sit and cry with our mother.”

Years later, when several members of Tomizy’s family walked outside the village border, a group of settlers ambushed and killed them, he says.

“I was so confused after that,” Tomizy says. “Israelis were my personal friends, but Israelis were also my family’s killers.”

A group of Jewish residents from Gush Katif planned to attend the sulha to offer a human face to a group that often is demonized. Their goal was to have an open-dialogue tent where they could express their views and be heard.

“They wanted to offer the experience of settlers as human beings so they wouldn’t be seen as these monsters or enemies of peace,” McLean says. In order for there to be true reconciliation, he adds, “you need to have voices like theirs included in a circle of dialogue.”

However, Israeli police restrictions imposed to curtail an anti-withdrawal march on the Gaza Strip meant that the Gush Katif residents couldn’t make it to the sulha.

For the Jews and Arabs who did attend from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and abroad, the sulha proved to be a healing experience.

“People from many countries are talking about how we all can understand each other,” says Ngawang Lisel, a Tibetan Buddhist studying Judaism at Hebrew University.

Ovadia Alkalay, a Nigerian Christian living in Israel for the past three years, says, “It lets the world know that war is not the only thing going on in the Middle East.”

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