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Middle East Peace Programs

Experiencing a Variety of Cultures in Jerusalem and Palestine

The morning of Dec. 18, 2008 began with a tour of Old Jerusalem by participants in the International Young Leaders program of the Middle East Peace Initiative trip. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and friendly, relating everything around us to stories from the Old and New Testaments. Later that day we traveled across the border into Palestinian Territory. There we were able to meet with Palestinian officials and, more importantly, experience a comparison of culture.

When walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, it was immediately noticeable that these places of historical and spiritual significance were not glorified by the average citizen of Jerusalem. Of course, places such as the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are places of worship and at the same time tourist attractions. But people also live and work in the area; they go to school and raise their families. Vendors line the routes.
It can be somewhat jarring especially for a first-time visitor to Jerusalem. In your mind, you imagine the site where Jesus was crucified to be a quiet meditative place, but it is not. In your mind, you imagine the Western Wall to be highly ritualized, but in reality it has been modernized; there are plastic chairs for sitting down, and covering your hair (for women) is suggested but not enforced. To the locals these places are a part of their daily life; they read the Holy Scriptures and worship there. They just happen to be famous places of worship and monuments that hold the attention of the world.
In the afternoon, we traveled to Palestine. Palestine may easy to get into but often hard to get out of. There is a distinct difference in energy before and after the border crossing. As soon as the bus starts driving up the street, a heavy feeling settles on your chest and goes deep into your heart; your mind fills with thoughts of what is lacking.
Mr. Kamal Thabet, secretary general UPF-Palestine, welcomed the MEPI participants and organized a panel discussion followed by lunch in one of the finest hotels in Ramallah. The panel included Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, chief judge of the Shari'a Courts; Dr. Thomas Walsh, Secretary General of the Universal Peace Federation; Dr. Sang Jin Lee, Regional Chair of UPF-Middle East; and Dr. Hajat Asstal, member of the Palestinian parliament. The consensus from the panel was a plea for equality and an interest in reconciliation. People shared their first-hand experiences and the desire to improve their situation.
After the panel session closed, people began to mingle. Some women from the MEPI group joined in prayer with Dr. Asstal praying for the strength and guidance from God to help improve the conditions of the Middle East and find solutions for health issues and the general well-being of all Palestinians.
We moved to the dining room, where we were served Palestinian food. The MEPI participants and local Palestinians had the opportunity to interact over lunch. At one table, there were representatives from Uzbekistan, Mexico, the United States, and Palestine. Halila, a local Palestinian, talked about her daily experiences living in Palestine.

It is a blessing to have such a first-hand encounter and sense the emotions of a person who holds so much concern for the well-being of Palestinians. For them, this is not just another issue to resolve but a reality of daily life.
The history of the Arab people and culture is deeply rooted in people's identity as Palestinians. In comparison, American culture is new and relatively undefined. Of course, there is a diversity of personalities and lifestyles among Palestinians, but we became aware that Palestinian patriotism is virtually indistinguishable from Arab identity and their respective faith.


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