“We will not be able to overcome the hatred without a willingness for reconciliation”
Jews and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians want to break through the spiral of violence – Aid to the Church in Need is supporting a reconciliation project
The Holy Land is being rocked by violence. Since the autumn of 2015, scarcely a week has passed without violence and counter violence breaking out between Israelis and Palestinians. About 30 Israelis have lost their lives to Palestinian attackers. Around 180 Palestinians have been killed in defensive action or in violent clashes with Israeli security forces. Hundreds have been wounded. But how can one break out of the spiral of hatred? How can Jews and Palestinians be brought together?
“Everyone here is deeply embroiled in the conflict. This is about two traumatised peoples,” Sarah Bernstein believes. The Israeli Jew is head of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR) in Jerusalem. She recently began to oversee a programme that is intended to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is one of the main supporters of this project. “What we want to do is to put ourselves into the situation of the other. We are using the Spiritual Counselling method. The goal is to lead people to recognise the values underlying their lives and, in doing so, to reconcile them with the suffering they have experienced. Normally psychologists try to get those who have been traumatised by violence and terror functioning again. We, however, want to go deeper. As difficult as it is, it is about reaching the soul of the other in order to make true reconciliation possible.”
Sarah Bernstein knows the Israeli soul. “I have been living in Israel for thirty years. These days remind me very much of the time of the Second Intifada (i.e. the uprising of the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation from 2000 to 2005). Those were traumatising months and years for the Jews, especially here in Jerusalem.” The mother of three children looks back. “At the time there were constant attacks. You lived in perpetual fear for your children. Once, one of my children was only four cars behind a bus that was blown up. That leaves a mark. It takes time before fear turns into hatred. But now it is here,” Sarah says in reference to the mood of the Israeli population.
Sarah, however, did not want to resign herself to this. Several years ago she met Sammy, a Palestinian Christian. He had visited Auschwitz and was deeply moved by it. “He understood how pivotal the Holocaust is for the Jewish people. I, on the other hand, had already started to be interested in the Palestinian perspective during the Second Intifada and tried to put myself in their position. I had always understood that they are entitled to the same human rights as me. But I knew little beyond that. I wanted to change this and understand how the Palestinians feel.”
Sammy and Sarah, a Palestinian Christian and an Israeli Jew, were quickly in agreement. “We were both convinced that what we needed was true healing,” Sarah says. “Hatred and fear destroy the soul. You can see this in Israel, where not even the Left and the Right trust each other.” The two began to organise classes for people with a background in psychotherapy, psychologists, clergy and teachers. The idea was that they should first meet with each other and then carry these positive experiences out into their societies. “In 2015, Aid to the Church in Need began to support us. We are very thankful for this. For the first time, we were able to put together a one-year programme of weekly meetings.” The idea behind the meetings between Israelis and Palestinians: to change one’s own thinking. To open one’s heart for reconciliation. To solve a national conflict through an interfaith dialogue and spiritual healing.
“The meetings are about changing behavioural patterns and recognising the humanity of the enemy – or those whom we consider to be the enemy. One’s own religion or spirituality is the source of this. Sammy always uses an example that clearly shows what this is all about,” Sarah says. “When a Palestinian comes up to a checkpoint with an Israeli soldier, he expects to be treated in a degrading way. He has experienced it often. And so he will behave in a correspondingly angry way. And this already predetermines how the encounter will go. After all, the Israeli soldier is also expecting to face anger in his dealings with Palestinians. The point is to approach such situations with a positive attitude. Then they may go differently. And most importantly you will no longer be as upset by it,” Sarah firmly believes. “A Christian like Sammy will keep the example of Jesus and his willingness to forgive in mind. And for me as a Jew, my Judaism will be the source of my commitment to reconciliation.”
However, the conflict is ever present, even when choosing the language and meeting place for the group meetings. “We speak English during our sessions because neither Hebrew nor Arabic is spoken by all. Furthermore, we meet in Beit Jalla. This may be located behind the wall, but we Israelis are allowed to go there as well. We would not be allowed to enter the neighbouring Palestinian city of Bethlehem, for example. Israeli law prohibits this for reasons of security. By the same token, many Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israeli cities. Moreover, many do not want to work together with Israelis, be it out of fear or conviction.” It is also not the case, Sarah continues, that agreement is always reached in all things during the sessions. “For example, I, as a Jew, believe in the Jewish right of domicile here. If not, I would not have come here from England thirty years ago. For many Palestinians this viewpoint is completely unacceptable. You will not be able to dispel this.”
This is exactly the reason why Sarah sees initiatives such as hers as so crucial. “Each political process, all efforts to end the occupation will come to nothing if there is not at least a modicum of trust between the two sides. We religious people are adding a special perspective to the situation by trying to see the other as a creature of God. This is the only way we can break out of this vicious cycle of violence.”
Aid to the Church in Need is supporting the reconciliation project “Healing Hatred – Spiritual Counselling in Situations of Conflict” of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.