by Johan, South Hebron Hills Team
Last week, the Ecumenical Accompaniers were invited to participate in Shabbat celebrations in Jerusalem. We went to the Kehilat Yedidiya synagogue, where we sat in for the evening prayer. Kehilat Yedidiya is a congregation that is used to welcoming visitors from all faiths.
Deborah Weissmann, former Chair of the Council on Jewish-Christian Relations, is a member of the synagogue and welcomed us with a smile:
-It has been a hard week with lots of snow in Jerusalem, and people are tired on a Friday evening. If you fall asleep during the sermon, you won’t be alone!
The prayer consisted of Kabbalat Shabbat – welcoming the day of rest. The entire congregation joined in the singing, and the atmosphere was solemn, yet relaxed. Children were playing in the aisles, and people prayed in their own rhythm.
The service was a very nice experience. Still, the highlight of our evening was to be invited to Shabbat dinner after the service. I thus had the privilege of joining a Jewish family in their home in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem, along with two other EAs. Our hosts had also invited some other friends and their children to share the evening with us.
Before the dinner we washed our hands in silence, and our hosts blessed the wine and the challah, the bread. They also sang to welcome the Shabbat angels into the house: According to some Jewish rites, two angels accompany every person home from the synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. The dinner itself was a feast consisting of many tasty, home-cooked dishes.
We had already realized that our host and his friend were politically liberal. They were genuinely interested in our experiences as Ecumenical Accompaniers in the West Bank, and they also asked about what we do back home. Since I just graduated from university, the question of where I studied came up.
-The American University in Cairo? Wow! Bruce, one of our host’s friends, said.
-What was it like to study there?
-Well, I learned a lot about the Arab perspective on Israel and Palestine. So, it’s also good for me to come here and hear the other side of the story.
-I’m glad to hear that. Bruce nodded. All of a sudden, his daughter burst out:
-Do they hate us?
That question hit me right in the stomach. She hadn’t said anything until then. She basically wanted to know whether my Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian friends hate her. If they hate her for being Israeli. I wasn’t prepared for such a question, and what do you answer to that? I thought for a second about the word “hate”. A strong, harsh word which didn’t belong in that house, in such pleasant company. The word “hate” left a gloomy atmosphere around the table.
I though it was sad that she, a 21-year old girl with her entire life ahead of her, asked this question first and foremost. I hesitated.
-Tell us the truth, everyone said,
-We probably know it already. And don’t worry, we can handle to hear it from you.
Bruce continued: Do your Arab friends perceive Israel as a Western, colonial power, or as the Jews returning to their home?
-I know students in Cairo who don’t think that Israel fits into the region as things stand today, I finally replied, -To them, Israel ripped apart the common cultural and social fabric that was the Middle East before, and now they don’t know what to think about the country. There are so many painful stories. In Cairo, I met Lebanese who were teenagers during the war in 2006, I met Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps…
– And the hatred exists. Unfortunately, it does.
Our hosts and their friends nodded and understood. We sat in silence for moment.
The rest of the evening we often returned to the topic of the occupation, the settlers, and the clashes we have witnessed between soldiers and Palestinians. Our new Israeli friends appreciated that we told our stories, and they understood the problems the Palestinians face in the West Bank. Our host had even worked on human rights issues in the Occupied Territory before. We had a great night and enjoyed unforgettable hospitality, but I was reminded that politics are never far away when you talk to Palestinians and Israelis.
And on my first Shabbat, I faced some difficult questions. As I make more friends on both sides of the conflict, the tough questions become even more difficult.
The solution must be peace. Hatred is not perpetual; it can and must be changed. If 1948 tore up the Middle East, a just peace can sow it together again, with Israel as a natural part. My host in Jerusalem agreed. His friends agreed. I know that many in Israel and Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East, agree. As Israel gears up for elections next week, this message is more important than ever.
Shabbat shalom, and have a nice weekend.