I am sitting in the Arab quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem having a cup of mint tea. It is about 5:30 p.m. and suddenly I hear a blasting sound of the Muslim clergy chanting prayers through a microphone piercing the old city calling the faithful to pray. It is not a distant sound but one piercing my ears. I was sitting around the corner from the old city mosque.
The Arab men sitting with me remain and continue their conversation. Simultaneously, I watch Christian clergy leading their groups in front of me heading toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and a few Jewish Israelis hurrying off to their next task. I watch this diversity and shake my head in amazement.
The Old City is an amazing microcosm of all the major religions of Christendom, Islam and Judaism. The secular and the religious exist together in cramped circumstances. Holy sites abound and history beckons not just the tourist, but clergy from all over the world as well as business leaders and politicians. A walled city such as this reminds us that while tensions exist and sometimes erupt, even into occasional violent episodes, the religious and secular live together and make it work. The truth of the matter is that the Israeli government keeps the peace and is a strong presence in the streets. The Israelis protect equal access to all holy sites.
My travels throughout Israel have shown that the country has the challenge of keeping the peace among these different groups and their respective communities. Israel has religious freedom and yet there are always tensions between religion and the state. Even the Jewish community has tensions between the majority Orthodox power structure and the minority reform and conservative Jewish groups who strive for their fair share of resources, respect and dignity.
Israel has delegated to the major religions the ability to operate courts and the authority to pay its clergy to handle issues of family law, including conversions and marriage and divorce. It is different from our system in America where there is a clear separation between religion and the state. The circumstances, however, are unique. Israel does not have a constitution so granting that kind of autonomy is not only legal but is crucial in order to keep an equilibrium between these groups in the society at large.
It is also important not to imagine that everyone in Israel — whether they are Arab, Jewish or Christian — are religious extremists. Cable news and other media agencies tend to focus on outbreaks of violence and ignore the daily culture in Israel. This includes religious life, too.
Many Jewish and Arab Israelis are secular in the sense that they do not necessarily participate on a daily basis by attending services or following all the laws of their respective faiths. They are secular in an Israeli sense but still devoted to their faith tradition, and the community of that faith that binds them to their families and ancestors.
In big cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, these religious groups live together and have to contend with issues that are part and parcel of living together in an urban environment.
Neighborhoods that are primarily Jewish, Christian and Muslim contend for scarce resources for young families, better government services and improved education. Doesn’t this sound somewhat familiar with what we experience in urban America? I am hopeful that with the support of local groups that help build community among these religious and ethnic groups that dialogue can help build trust and break down some long time barriers. I had the chance while visiting a community center in Haifa to speak with a community worker who facilitates a group from all these religions to learn how to work together.
In the city of Jaffa, I visited a Jewish-Arab community center and spoke to the Arab executive director. The center provides classes and sport activities to young and old. Why doesn’t that get reported? The truth is that there is progress in how religious groups live together on a daily basis, but, I am afraid it will never get the media exposure it deserves.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems or acts of hatred or a lack of trust between these groups, but it also doesn’t mean that Israel is not working hard to respect all religions and recognizing the needs that exist to build a healthier society.
Keeping the peace between religions is a daily challenge in Israel. The lesson is that peace happens incrementally person by person, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town. In this way, peace has a better chance when it rises up as compared to when it trickles down.
I am not praying so much for the coming of a Messiah as my theology teaches. Yet, I will pray that Christians, Muslims and Jewish children can play in a school yard together.
I am praying that religious leaders can help clear the pathway for their communities to live together in peace.
I am praying that one day Jews, Christians and Muslims can sit down in a cafe and talk to each other while drinking their tea.
Then I shall know that God is moving hearts and souls.