Thursday, June 21, 2012

What We Do

"It's what they do here." Spoken yesterday in Jerusalem by someone in our St. John's pilgrim band, these were the first coherent words that formed in my mind after I was awakened today at 4:30 a.m. by the Muslim call to prayer. It was really the jet lag, course. At home I'd sleep through the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing in the shower. Our shower. With the door open. So I didn't need a scapegoat for being up before the mockingbirds.

But lest I be tempted to pick on Islam anyway, there was that voice in my head. People believe and worship differently without being different. If we are to experience the reality and even inevitability of our conflicts, let it at least not be because of our love for God.

The comment was made, as I recall, during our discussion right before dinner with Bernard Sabella, a U.S.-educated sociologist and member of the legislative council of the Palestinian National Authority. During our astonishing first full day of pilgrimage, we'd visited the Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulcher and prowled all four quarters of the Old City. We'd eaten fresh cherries and freshly-baked bread sprinkled with spices, drank fresh-squeezed orange juice while gazing at the Dome of the Rock, and dined with the Lutherans in the Christian Quarter. Kathy had stood atop the southern steps of the demolished Jewish temple, one of my favorite spots in Jerusalem, with Herod's wall behind her and, over her head, the al-Aqsa mosque and the arch of a gate Jesus Christ may have walked through -- surely ground zero of the great Abrahamic dialog.

From our genial, hard-charging guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, we pilgrims had heard somewhat more historical and archaeological data than we had retained. And now it was time for the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian politics? Before dinner, did Iyad say? But Sabella kept it light. This wasn't his first encounter with jet-lagged pilgrims. "I don't like Israel, I don't dislike Israel," he said with a smile and shrug. His Palestinian Catholic family was displaced by the 1948 war of independence and settled in then Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem, where his father reinvented himself as a tour guide for pilgrim groups like ours. One day he sat waiting for his group to regather in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, his fez in the palm of one hand while he wiped his brow the other, and someone put a dollar in his hat.

As he told the story, Sabella laughed without resentment. And he evinced little if any irritation about the nearly four-year stall in negotiations for a Palestinian state nor even about the steady growth of the Israeli settler population. Perhaps he is among those who believe that his people's long-term prospects are good given the growth of Arab populations inside and outside Israel. "We need a political solution," he said, "but if comes, it will because of relationships and trust between people, not because of governments and bureaucrats."

He sounded most discouraged after pilgrim Bob Hayden described his Chicago boyhood, when children of all backgrounds and races played easily together and judged one another on the content of their characters and, knowing Bob as I do, the quality of their fastballs. Sabella replied that Israel's faith-based educational system increasingly discouraged relationships with Muslims and Arabs. That didn't ring entirely true given the secular outlook among many modern Israelis. Muslims and Arabs throughout the region also commit their share of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish curriculum.

It's a shame if anyone is teaching children to hate, either the Jewish children we encountered having a snack in the Old City or the Arab kids who walked by us yesterday morning, joyfully pounding their feet on the hard-packed ground of the Temple Mount. Under them and us was 3,000 years of history, buried but unquiet -- Muslim and Christian conquests, Jesus sitting at the feet of the rabbis and lashing out in anger at those who were selling salvation, two great temples, pre-Davidic Palestinians. What a story! The roots of centuries of conflict and all western civilization. We may not figure it all out in the next ten days, or in our lifetimes. Maybe the children will. At their best, it's what they do.

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