Voices for peace in Gaza | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

Voices for peace in Gaza

/ 12:43 AM August 16, 2014

Very inspiring is how Verena Wright Lovett describes the “conversation” between Hana Bendcowsky and Rula Shubeita before the participants of the July 2014 Program of the Bat Kol Institute for Jewish Studies held in Jerusalem.

Hana, an Israeli Jew and program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, and Rula, a Palestinian Christian, are friends. Both are Jerusalem residents born in the city, have studied at Hebrew University and worked as tour guides, but their friendship is uncommon in a land divided by religion and ethnicity.

Their eight-year friendship is also remarkable for being forged on a common “mission” to promote interreligious dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims, especially among women. Thus, even in a time of war between Israelis and Palestinians, they remain friends as they speak of the ways to peace.

By the time Hana and Rula speak before the Bat Kol program participants, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has turned from bad to worse. With the war at its fiercest, the Bat Kol participants half-expect Hana’s scheduled talk on “The Israeli-Palestinian Situation” to be canceled. But she arrives with Rula, turning a purely academic discussion into a frank and lively conversation among friends and colleagues.

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Verena, from England, and 14 others from Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Zimbabwe, United Kingdom and the Philippines are in Jerusalem for a study program, “Emunah: Faith and Mistrust in the Book of Numbers,” at the Bat Kol.

The study program is centered on the Torah (the first five books of the holy book of the Jews; also the first five books of the Christian Bible called the Pentateuch). Like the other Bat Kol programs, it is unique as it has “Christians studying the Bible within its Jewish milieu, using Jewish sources.”

Earlier, the participants go through more than 80 hours of study directed by a team of Jewish and Christian professors. They visit sites considered holy and historic by Christians and/or Jews: the archeological sites of Qumran, Migdal (Magdala), Capharnaum (“the town of Jesus”), Katzrin and the Talmudic Village, Tzafat, Tzippori and Bet Shea-rim, the Holy Sepulcher, Western Wall, Mount of Olives, and Garden of Gethsemane, among others. They also spend quiet time in the heart of the Judean desert, to have a feel of the experience of the Israelites as they wandered for 40 years in the desert, as told in the Book of Numbers.

Invariably, though it is not the topic for discussion, the Jewish professors (mostly Orthodox, Liberal and Reform rabbis) have to briefly share their thoughts on the ongoing war. Their comments: “It’s one of the usual conflicts we have every two years, and we’ll have them as long as we don’t have a good summer camp.” “It’s part of our complicated reality.” “The situation has become one of despair.”

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Hana and Rula do not gloss over the hard reality of war. But as one participant notes, they have a different “tone” as they include hard reality and a sense of hope.

Rula says her ancestors lived for hundreds of years in the city of Ramleh near Tel Aviv. Her father was a landlord who owned many olive trees. But during the 1948 war, her parents were displaced and “they lost everything.” Her father and three uncles were taken prisoner and her mother, then a three-day-old bride, aunt and two grandmothers had to travel by foot to the West Bank. They eventually reached Jerusalem after a long journey and became refugees.

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After some months, the men were released from prison. While Rula’s father stayed to look for his bride, her unmarried uncles left to find work in Kuwait. They have since lost their right to return. Her parents were eventually reunited, but it was quite challenging for her father to start all over again and, later, to raise six children.

Rula holds an Israeli identification card, but she is not an Israeli citizen. She also holds a Jordanian passport, but she is not a Jordanian citizen either. She says this is the status of every Palestinian baby born in Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Hana says her paternal grandmother came to Israel in 1939 and was joined by her grandfather just before Germany invaded Poland. Her grandparents survived the Holocaust but lost most of their relatives. Her maternal grandmother survived Auschwitz. Her mother was “a typical traumatized second-generation Holocaust survivor,” she says. “When we were growing up, we always had to finish the food on our plate. You don’t leave the food uneaten. You do not throw away anything. You cannot just talk about anything.”

She describes her childhood as “loaded” and “very exhausting.” And: “Your parents would sacrifice everything for the grandparents because they survived the Holocaust.”

Asked about the present conflict, Rula, whose face always hints of a smile, says: “My family and I watched TV for news updates for almost for 24 hours… The pictures that come from Gaza are very heartbreaking.”

Says Hana: “It is not difficult to take sides.” Her brother is in the army in Hebron (the largest city in the West Bank, about 70 kilometers from Gaza). Many of her friends are also in the army. Stretching her arms as far as she can, she heaves a big sigh and says, “The mistrust among the people has grown very big,” and after the war, it will be hard to build trust and do away with stereotypes.

“What do most Palestinians think of Israelis?” Hana asks Rula. “They are settlers (usurpers of land),” says Rula.

Rula asks Hana, “What do most Israelis think of Palestinians?” Says Hana: “They are terrorists.”

Almost on cue, they shrug their shoulders, and laugh. Hana says, “I am not a settler.” And Rula says, “I am not a terrorist either.”

Hana, who has more than 14 years of practical experience in interfaith activities in Israel and abroad, has worked with Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, and Muslims. On top of this is her personal mission: “I teach basic courses  in Christianity to Jews.”

Rula, an  Orthodox Christian, is concerned about the decreasing number of Christians in the Holy Land. Before the 1948 war, the Christians were the majority, but now they comprise less than 2 percent of the total population, she says. This is because Christians in particular and Palestinians in general are leaving because of “the occupation of their land, discrimination, and oppression.”

This emigration should be stopped by helping Christians find job opportunities, Rula says, adding: It is important for them to be present in the Holy Land. As stated in the Bible, Christianity was born in Jerusalem, during Pentecost, on the Mount of Zion.

Impressed by what she heard from Hana and Rula, Joanna Kowalski of Canada writes about the two “dynamic women” in her blog. “They identified stumbling blocks in their commitment to working for peaceful dialogue, and new initiatives for justice and equality: lack of equal rights for Palestinian people, strong patriarchal attitudes on both sides (there are no women leaders), and continued segregation between Jews and Palestinians in schools, neighborhoods, markets etc., which perpetuates ignorance and fear in the two communities.”

Hana and Rula have also outlined their strategies for peace. For Rula, dialogues with women are a key step. “I believe that hand in hand we can help build a better future. The power of a woman is big as a woman would make a very good impact on her children, in her home, on her husband, brothers, father, and all the [other] men in the family.”

For Hana, education and encounters are the other keys for peace. “If you know ‘the other’ (the people who do not belong to your religion or ethnic group), he is not ‘the other’ anymore. He is a friend, he is someone you know.”

And thus are stereotypes neutralized.

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Miner Generalao, a participant of the July 2014 Bat Kol program, heads the Inquirer Research Department.

TAGS: column, gaza, miner generalao, peace process

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