When you ask someone for their opinion on religion and politics in Israel, you will more than likely get a direct answer.
It is a land where many groups of peoples are convinced they hold an eternal truth about how they see the world, or what their religious convictions are and, yet, paradoxically, seem less able to understand the other person’s truth.
Walking through the Carmel open air market in Tel Aviv, I am reminded as I wade through the midday throngs of people and hear the cackling of store owners or see the shoppers squeezing by each other, that eternal truths end up as casualties against the mundane hustle and bustle of people who have no time to discuss Scriptural doctrine.
Looks like nothing has changed since my last trip four years ago.
Our trip to Israel this time strives to accomplish two objectives.
First like all other groups from churches or synagogues who visit the country, sight seeing is the first objective. We want to see the ancient world, visit the archaeological sites, imagine what our cherished biblical characters did standing in this alleyway inside Jerusalem’s Old City or by the Jordan River long ago. Those are the eternal truth moments of sightseeing in Israel.
The second part of the trip seeks to meet living, breathing people who care about and are involved in the challenge of making Israel a successful living, breathing and diverse nation.
It comes as no surprise that Israel has more than her fair share of critical and existential issues when it comes to security, religious pluralism and, like all other nations, the economy.
What often goes under-reported and unappreciated in the American news media is the effort that everyday Israelis invest to keep peace with the religiously diverse groups in their local communities.
One example of this challenge was our visit to a high school in the northern city of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.
We visited a unique school called the Leo Baeck School. Founded in memory of a rabbi who went into the concentration camps with his people and survived, this school also runs a community center and a school program that goes from kindergarten to high school. One of the staff is a community organizer who works with the most religiously observant Jews, secular Jews, Arabs and Christians.
I asked him how he works with such a diverse and potentially volatile group and still keeps peace in his section of Haifa. He said he starts from the premise of what people have in common in terms of community needs. In that way, he explained, he is able to bypass the religion issue and focus instead on the real daily issues that he can help them with to better their lives in relation to city officials.
“I don’t ever want to lose my hope,” he said. “That is the most important thing — not to lose hope.”
In the historic city called Acco or Acre, we met with two actors who write and act in plays that deal with how Arabs and Jews get along with each other. One actor is an Arab Israeli and the other is a Jew.
Khalid is a Sufi Muslim who comes from a sect of Islam which is non-political and primarily devotes its efforts to doing good deeds, prayer, meditation, music and even dance. They speak of love between human beings. I want to meet more sufis in the future like him.
Khalid told the story from our Torah of Cain and Abel regarding the issue of fratricide. He acted out that internal conflict in a performance for us and explained, “that when the time comes, people will realize that they cannot run away from the hurt, like Cain.” They will then “have a chance to find the best in themselves.”
I took heart that we met with such special people who are listening to another’s truth.
People are listening to each other no matter how small the numbers may be.
Non-believers in the hope for peace warn that time is running out on peace between so many desperate peoples and so much mistrust. The problem is further exacerbated when the media constantly reports stories of so many negative things. Our community rarely gets the whole story of how the people on the ground on both sides are working every day for peace.
Somehow the hope that people can use their religion to overcome their ancient antagonism is still alive. Their stories deserve better coverage by the American media.
These hidden success stories are the contemporary eternal truths we need to highlight and give hope to and even fight for. There are communities across Israel that do, in fact, reach out toward one other.
They are examples about how the truth of our religious conviction can redeem us from eternal cynicism and may give us an opening to make a difference in the world.