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Middle East Peace Programs

Visiting Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Communities in the Holy Land

Middle East Peace Initiative program in Sept. 2004 offered participants opportunities to visit neighborhood in Jerusalem and surrounding areas to gain a sense of the diverse people of the land, the challenges of daily life, and glimpses into their hearts. Since MEPI participants come from different cultures, races, and religions, spending time as a group in these neighborhoods is itself a demonstration of the potential for diverse people to make common cause. The following is an account of the experiences of a busload of Americans over the course of three days.

Kafr Qasim

A man was walking toward a village on top of a mountain. On the way, he saw an old man and asked him what the people were like on top of the mountain. The old man asked him what the people in the village he came from were like. “Oh, they were bad. They weren’t good at all. They were mean to each other, and they were always causing trouble.” He was told that he would find that the people in the village on top of the mountain like that too.

Another traveler came by and asked the old man what the people were like who lived on top of the mountain. The old man asked him what the people in the village he came from were like. “They were full of love and goodness; they were always thinking about what they could do to help their neighbors,” the second traveler replied. He was told that he would find that the people in the village on top of the mountain like that too.

With this story, tour guide Maria Sfour welcomed the American MEPI group heading for Kafr Qasim, a Muslim village in the low hills about an hour’s drive northwest of Jerusalem. This was a day for going where tourists rarely go and experiencing things tourists seldom experience. This was the first of several opportunities to engage ordinary people in a spirit of openness and reconciliation.

The Americans practiced the common greetings of peace in the Holy Land: shalom (in Hebrew) and asalaam aleikum (in Arabic). They thought about the stories they had been hearing for the past few days of briefings and visiting the standard tourist sites, the holy places of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. One could spend a lifetime here without plumbing the depths of history and faith, but visitors can at least offer a listening heart.

Often viewed as representatives of their government and popular culture, Americans traveling abroad can become targets of strong opinions and emotions. A veteran of previous peace trips talked about his experiences defusing generalized antagonism by saying simply, “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.”

The bus descended through the ragged hills, olive groves, and cotton fields, past the Tel Aviv airport and housing developments. After turning on side roads and driving through narrow streets, it finally reached the close-set homes of Kafr Qasim.

The Arabs in Kafr Qasim are Israeli citizens. On October 29, 1956, amid rising tensions on the eve of the Sinai War, the commander of a nearby Israeli battalion gave orders for curfew to begin within a half hour. However, the village people who had gone to work had no knowledge of the curfew, and as they returned home they were gunned down. That evening 49 men, women, and children died. Many people understandably flee the scene of bloody memories, but the grieving survivors in Kafr Qasim sought to rise above the past and find ways to continue living among their Jewish neighbors. (According to records of a subsequent hearing in an Israeli court, the commander had told the people under him to show “no sentimentality.” As a result of the case, the Israeli Supreme Court made a landmark ruling on the obligation of soldiers to disobey manifestly illegal orders.)

The host in Kafr Qasim was Dr. Hassan Amer, a Muslim psychotherapist who is committed to bringing reconciliation among divided peoples. He founded a school where his people could learn the principles of physical and emotional healing.

The bus parked beside some small shops, and people stared as the visitors exited. Dr. Amer welcomed the visitors in the warm Mediterranean climate, and they spread out in groups of four or five to meet local people. The homes did not generally have doorbells, so visitors stand at the gate and call out, Salaam alaikum. Often there was no answer. Sometimes a boy in the street would go to the door and call out to the family, and they would respond to him. The Americans met children, mothers, and grandmothers; sometimes there was a teenager who could speak some English. They served guests sweetened fruit drinks.

The women were doing laundry or ironing, washing tile floors, and preparing the afternoon meal for the men who would be returning from Friday prayers. Young children peered silently around a corner or over a kitchen counter. The visitors passed around a booklet about MEPI’s effort to build bridges of understanding, respect, and cooperation between people of different faiths. However, the booklets were in English, and the women asked why they didn’t give them something in Arabic, or at least Hebrew, which they had been obliged to study at school.

“We are sorry. We’re working on that,” was the answer.

Out in the streets, there were some animated conversations with university students asking questions about American government’s policy. “We are sorry,” was sometimes the only response that could be offered.

Shopkeepers invited some visiting groups inside for coffee and conversation. In one instance, an entire meal was spontaneously prepared and graciously served.

“The first place we stopped there was some animosity,” one person reported. “The gentleman we were talking to was focusing on everything that was going wrong with his life, and he didn’t think we were in a position to be of help. I began to wonder if enmity was going to be all that we would find as we talked to people.” Later, someone invited them to sit down at a table with him, and a teacher who spoke English expressed his concern about the future of the children, a point of common interest for the visitors, many of them also being parents.

Family bonds and legacies for future generations would be the most hopeful threads of conversation in all of the communities visited.

Dr. Amer hosted the group for a meal and then invited everyone to visit the college he is building as part of his vision of what it means to be an ambassador for peace. “It is a privilege of mine to serve you and have you in my village,” he said. “You cleanse my heart. I am willing to sacrifice my soul, my heart, and myself for this mission.”

The vacant building smelled of fresh concrete, plaster, and hope. “We plan to teach physical therapy, psychology, and social work, because Israeli Arabs have almost no trained people in these fields,” Dr. Amer added. “It is difficult for Arab students to gain admission to Israeli universities, especially to these faculties.”

With abundant nourishment for the body and much food for thought, the Americans boarded the bus to visit a local mosque. However, traffic was blocked for a wedding procession. “That’s the bridegroom, accompanied by his family and friends, heading to meet his bride,” the tour guide explained to the curious Americans. Two people and two families joining in new bonds of love is an occasion for celebration in any culture. The people in the street motioned for the curious people in the bus to come out and join them. Women in the street did impromptu line dances with the American women, and the American men joined the bridegroom’s friends, digging into their wallets to add to the money being collected for the new couple.

“There are two dialogues in the world,” the sheikh told the visitors when they arrived at his mosque: “the dialogue of violence and the dialogue of peace. As religious people, we support the dialogue of peace.” His words were a reminder that life is a series of choices. “I hope you will succeed in this great challenge,” he concluded.


Shortly after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, MEPI participants spent a day visiting Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem to give the traditional greeting of Shana Tova! (Happy New Year!) and invite people to share their thoughts about peace. MEPI brings together people of backgrounds to learn from each other, and the Americans discovered common concerns and a variety of ways to connect with people in Jerusalem.

One American married to a Muslim had commented that she had felt more comfortable with the prospect of relating to Muslims than to Jews. “But then I thought of those Jewish people who were taken out of their homes, put on freight trains, and shipped to concentration camps, never to return, and how my ancestors had stood by and let this happen,” she said. “That’s when I decided to come on this trip.”

The day began with a walking tour of the Old City escorted by Dr. Eliezer Glaubach, who had served four terms as a Jerusalem city council member. “When my wife and I moved to Jerusalem 40 years ago, our lives were transformed,” he explained, as he led the Americans through a gate that seemed to take them back through the millennia. Bubbling with stories of the twists and turns of history, Dr. Glaubach exclaimed, “This is the reality of Jerusalem!”

Dr. Glaubach grew up in Haifa, but he and his wife felt something lacking in their lives and moved to Jerusalem. “Jerusalem has an inexplicable attraction for us,” he reflected. “Every stone has its history. The holy scriptures were formulated here. Whether we are Muslim, Christian, or Jew, we worship the same God.”

From the Old City, they went to a neighborhood with apartment buildings, parks, single-family homes, and shops where they divided up into small groups. While Dr. Glaubach voiced the faith that animates his daily life, most of the people of Jerusalem are not observant Jews. The differences or commonalities of religions were seldom discussed that day, but some questions had spiritual resonance.

One group knocked on doors of an apartment building and had conversations with couples who were struggling with fears about random terrorist attacks. A shopkeeper they met was more optimistic; he described how his family had been living in this land for 2,000 years. People of different faiths had lived together peacefully in the past, and he believed they could learn to do it again.

A woman was walking down the sidewalk, carrying a baby. When she herself was but a child, she said her father had promised her a future without war. But when she turned 18 she had to report for military service. Now she wants peace for her baby and would like to ensure her a world without war. Deep down, most people would prefer to leave their descendants a legacy of peace rather than of war.

“If you are here for peace, please come in my house,” a woman greeted another group. She described an experience after the 1967 war watching a Palestinian woman holding a baby was trying to get through a barbed-wire fence but without success. The Palestinian looked the Jewish woman in the eyes and handed her the baby to hold while she made her way through the barrier. This account of humanity trumping stereotypes was told with pride.

One group returned to the bus carrying a bouquet of red roses they were given by a florist as a token of her hopes for peace. They reported a variety of responses including an elderly couple who could not acknowledge anything good in the Palestinians and a younger couple who believed that people were capable of living together despite their differences. It seemed that some variations in outlook were generational.

Repeatedly, the people of Jerusalem asked why the visitors had come on such a trip. One woman told an American that she couldn’t understand why he had come to Israel on a peace mission when there is so much unrest in the United States. He replied, “The scriptures we both read teach us that we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem and that those who love Jerusalem will prosper.” Perhaps the faces, voices, and vistas of Jerusalem will nestle in his heart and energize his prayers.

Standing in her doorway, one elderly woman told her visitors she wondered why she was still on earth. Such questions can occur to people of any culture but are rarely discussed with strangers. It seemed like a window into the heart. Each time such questions are raised, they stimulate a quest for deeper answers, with new insights perhaps to be gained through encounters with people of other faiths.

Bethlehem and Beit Sahour

“The future is uncertain if you don’t look at it with faith and love,” tour guide Maria Sfour remarked another day as she escorted a bus full of MEPI participants to Bethlehem. They had previously visited the Church of the Nativity and gift shops. This day offered a different range of experiences.

She wasn’t speaking in abstractions. Maria, who lived in Bethlehem, had been staying at her son’s home in Jerusalem for a number of days because of travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians, a recurring situation of unknown duration. If she re-entered the West Bank with the group, she didn’t know when she would be allowed back into Jerusalem and her work. Still, she wanted to show people around her home area. Maria had studied to be a tour guide at Bethlehem Bible College, and she views her work as a ministry.

Olive groves lined either side of the highway from Jerusalem to the birthplace of King David and Jesus a few miles to the south. On a hilltop to the left were the densely-packed buildings of a new Israeli settlement that was being ringed by concrete barriers 12-15 feet high. An Israeli soldier boarded the bus at the checkpoint and glanced at each person’s passport before waving the bus through.

Among the limestone buildings flung over the hills and valleys, groves of olive trees dot the rocky slopes. Israeli settlements have been built among the 21 villages and three cities in this part of the West Bank: Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and Bethlehem. Graffiti from the various political parties mars the walls. People make their living from tourism and creating craft products from olive tree wood, but when the second Intifada began in September 2000, tourism plummeted and unemployment soared.

Organized by the Alternative Tourism Group, host families around Bethlehem open their homes and hearts to travelers for a home-style meal or overnight stay. This was another opportunity to go off the beaten tourist path and get to know the people who live in the land, the “living stones,” among the weathered limestone of antiquity.

In groups of five or six, people set off to these host homes for lunch. The Christian families talked about how their ancestors had lived in the area for centuries and lamented that recent travel restrictions make it difficult to visit relatives. The American-style roast chicken and vegetables served by one family made the guests feel right at home. MEPI is grounded in the conviction that world peace is rooted in family peace, and guests offered prayers of blessing for their host families.

The next stop was to tour an orphanage and deliver gifts to the children.

The culmination of the day was Maria’s invitation to visit her home high on a cliff in Beit Sahour. She and her family apparently decided single-handedly to dispel Bethlehem’s reputation a couple of millennia ago for inhospitality.

The turns in the road were so sharp that someone had to get out of the bus and direct the driver to back up and ease forward in order to negotiate each curve. The darker the bus driver’s scowl, the brighter Maria’s face became with the anticipation of bring so many people of faith to her family’s home.

If Palestinians’ stories don’t hark back centuries ago, they pick up the pieces from decades past. It had taken 12 years for Maria’s family to get a building permit, they said, but the view from their curved verandahs overlooking the spectacular skyline of Jerusalem was timeless. The buildings soared above the distant horizon. In the winter, they said that only the tallest buildings are visible above the mists.

Maria’s in-laws had come from France. Her father-in-law retired from practicing dentistry when his eyesight began to fail, and he passes the long days sitting at a table playing solitaire with large cards. He was thrilled to have dozens of visitors.

Maria’s mother-in-law served cake and lemonade. In turn, the music-lovers among the Americans gathered around a piano and sang show tunes and gospel songs to the stirring beat of an impromptu accompanist. That day the home might have been a cathedral. The concert wound down with a solo sung in French, celebrating the beauties of autumn; it brought tears to the eyes of the elderly man.

Music probably saturates all the hills and valleys of the region. The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” describes the town as the convergence of the world’s hopes and fears. The visitors tasted a bit of both that day. The carol’s author, Bishop Phillips Brooks, wrote the following lesser-known words:

Do not pray for easy lives
Pray to be stronger men!
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers.
Pray for power equal to your tasks.

Enveloped in high spirits on the return to Jerusalem, the bus and all its passengers were waved through the checkpoint without incident.

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