On Tuesday October 30th amid tight security I attended an extraordinary event at the Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham, organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and Birmingham Churches Together. The hall was full, with around 100 people present. Archbishop Angaelos, Archbishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of London and currently Moderator of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham Bernard Longley were both present.
Archbishop Angaelos voiced the spirit of the occasion when he said that just because we were all there the evening was a success. Creating harmony within this great city and breaking down barriers was the work we were all engaged in. Archbishop Bernard Longley led us in a minute’s silence for those who recently died in the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and then introduced the speakers.
Chairing the evening was Sharon Booth who has an MA from Cambridge University specialising in Islam and Bibical Studies and a Master’s degree from Kings College London, specialising in Nationalism and Religion. In 2010 Sharon started ‘Solutions Not Sides’, taking individual young people from Israel and from Palestine into schools to offer diverse perspectives on the situation in Israel/Palestine, hoping to spread greater understanding by sharing personal stories and experiences from both sides.
Sharon brought with her Meron, a 28 year old Jew who is married and living in Jerusalem and studying at the Hebrew university, and Yasser, a Palestinian engineer who has studied for a Masters in Urban Planning and Design in Edinburgh and authored three books on Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem, which show pictures of Palestinians going about their daily lives in the beautiful surroundings of their native land. Yasser is now undertaking a PhD at Cambridge.
Each of the two speakers told us about their childhood, their families and what they had been affected by in their youth.
Meron remembers that as he and his siblings were being driven to school by his mother the car was often pelted with stones by Palestinians, but his parents always taught their children patience and understanding. On one significant occasion they saw Palestinians being made to stand in the sweltering heat in the sun without food and water at a checkpoint. His mother stopped the car in spite of holding up the traffic and refused to move until the Israeli soldiers released the Palestinians so that they could go home. In spite of his schoolboy embarrassment he was incredibly proud of his mother’s action and resolved to promote peace from then on because he ‘wants to be part of the solution, not the problem’. He later started ‘Kids for Peace’ which brings children from East and West Jerusalem together to share summer camps and get to know one another. He spoke of having to serve in the army and being on the Syrian border, where he had the joy of helping some of the first Syrian refugees, continuing to learn that people who spoke other languages and came from different cultures still shared their common humanity and were in general good people.
Yasser told us that his family, his grandfather and his brothers, had been forced to flee to Egypt during a period of unrest (Al Nakbah 1948). They had every reason to be very angry people but his grandfather had always taught his children that ‘Education is a tool for advancement’. Yasser remembers that in his childhood the Gaza strip was a flourishing city, unlike now. In 2004 his father moved the family to the West Bank for a better life and Yasser was invited to go to the USA with other Palestinian, American, Egyptian, Jordainian and Israeli youngsters for a ‘Seeds of Peace’ summer camp. He remembers the shock of meeting Israeli boys of his age and finding that they were just like the friends he had at home. Then he had to return and tell people he had ‘spent time with the enemy’, but this resulted in a positive outcome, where some participants ended up choosing to do community service instead of mandatory military service. Later during his undergraduate studies in Egypt, friends in Cairo clearly thought that Palestine was entirely a scene of war, so he created three photographic books to show the world that it was also a beautiful country with its own customs and culture. During his Masters studies he became more aware of the long-term, sustainable planning which takes place when establishing a vision for the future that shapes cities and landscapes, so he began to conceive of planning for a time when the aggression between Israel and Palestine would be ended and economic prosperity could return. He established a series of conferences called “Palestine Vision 2050” with the help of local and international organisations to tackle priority sectors such as being able to meet the Palestinian electricity needs through renewable resources such as with solar panels.
The evening finished with a summing up by both speakers of what the needs are on both sides of the conflict and a chance for questions from the floor. Both agreed that an end to violence was of primary importance, a fair distribution of water, equal access to holy sites, particularly in Jerusalem, and normal relations with neighbouring countries. Meron wanted an end to mandatory army service and no more incitement both politically and in the media. Yasser said that Palestine’s priority requirement is an end to the occupation. Other essential needs included establishing an airport, the right of Palestinian exiles to return home under an agreed upon plan if they want to and an end to the ‘open prison of Gaza’, where most people are civilians. They agreed that Jewish people living in settlements have needs as have Palestinians but that the Israeli government should immediately stop further settlement expansion and development. Settlements are built in the West Bank, which is Palestinian land under international law.
The first questions were about Hamas and about the holy sites. Both speakers agreed that Hamas should be included at the negotiating table so that its views could be engaged with and if need be opposed effectively. The issue of holy sites was more delicate. It was agreed that they could be managed much better.
I was very interested by the third question about how many people in Israel/Palestine speak both Hebrew and Arabic. The answer was very few. Our speakers had chosen to learn English so that they could make their way in the world, rather than each other’s languages. They agreed that it would be really good if everyone learned both languages. ‘There is definitely a language barrier’.
Other questions about history were countered with a firm assertion by both speakers that what is important is to address the situation now and work towards a better future. The evening ended with both young men expressing hope and seeking to offer a concrete vision of the future. They were both very firm that sanctions by the UK government would not be helpful, saying that foreign governments should adopt a neutral stance and press for peace. Meron said ‘we are the powerful side and we need to make the responses and take initiatives. We should not sanction any boycott. Those who do will automatically be seen as anti-Jew if other countries who are also violating International Law or human rights are not also targeted for a boycott’. Both men looked forward to future integration of communities and peaceful resolutions. Yasser said that his father had taught him that in classifying people: ‘some work for themselves and their families; some work for their community as well and some work also for future generations’
Summing up Peter Colwell, Deputy General Secretary of Churches Together in England and Ireland said that ‘many people know they have the answers. What is not done enough is sitting and listening as we have done this evening’.
I was very grateful to have listened to an evening such as this one, and was impressed by the courage and positivity of the young speakers and by all that they had already achieved. I was left with the enduring impression that with economic help and positive strategies such as the encouragement of bilingualism and a fair distribution of natural resources, much could be achieved. And then, clearly, the younger generation must move forward with their education and their determination to manage the future.
It seemed significant to me that it was apparently being brought together with people just like themselves from ‘the other side’ that had set these speakers on their life’s path. If the watching world wants to do anything helpful, I believe it should do what it can to help arrange more of these opportunities. I was reminded of one of my favourite quotations from the book Music in Western Civilisation by Paul Henry Lang ‘In every period of time there is the dying past, the flourishing present and the promising future’. We had had a taste of the flourishing present and the promising future and our future thinking will continue to benefit from its energy and hope.