The rabbi, the pastor and the imam

I’ve been joking since I got here that I am going to whip this country into shape and solve the Middle East peace conflict. I don’t have a strategy of course but I’m thinking butting a few heads together can’t hurt. Right? So today I met with a rabbi, a German  pastor and an imam (islamic leader) to suss out for myself what was going on.

The rabbi didn’t exactly provide me with the enlightenment I was hoping. When I heard about Dov Shurin, I thought  he would have some interesting views. He is grandson of some big wig rabbi in New York back in the day, and his father and 11 uncles are also rabbis. How could I go wrong?

What I got was an ultra orthodox, all singing, all dancing radical. He is the poster boy for the Hilltop Youth – young men who are influenced by religious Zionist ideals and got out and live on illegal settlements. They often play Dov’s music (he claims to have written the greatest song about John Lennon ever) which have themes connected to the Torah. He tried to get me to buy one of his albums titled: “Madly in Love with the One Above.”

Big and odd, he his been accused of being an extremist with right wing views. But he claims to love everyone. He claims to be the most misunderstood person in the Jewish world.

I don’t know about that, I just think people have no idea what to make of him at all.

I then visited German Reverend Michael Wohlrab at the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives who offered a great insight into the founding of Lutheran faith, the fact it’s leader wrote a lot of anti-semitic literature and how he feels to be a German in Israel given the events of the Nazi regime. Interestingly he said he meets more resistance when in New York than in Israel, where Jews will openly walk away from him at parties because of the brutality his countrymen once inflicted.

German Reverend Michael Wohlrab and Jew Eliyahu McLean

Alan Alda, the popular actor from M*A*S*H has a great quote “your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while , or the light won’t come in.”

I have to say my perception of Israel has changed dramatically in the last two weeks. In fact it changes daily, sometimes hourly, challenging you at every turn. Just when I think I have reached my conclusions about religion, politics and the conflict here, I am met with another point of view I hadn’t considered but is as equally right as the last.

I also had a warped perception of how Israelis live their everyday. A friend of mine had given me a few tips before I arrive in Jerusalem telling me, for example never to get buses and only get sheruts which are basically mini vans which follow the same route as the buses. Her reason: they are less of a target.

But I feel very safe here despite the omnipresent machine guns held by such young people. I feel they have been robbed of their innocence somewhat by being forced to hold a gun at such a young age… How could they possibly protect me in the event of something bad happening when they are just children themselves?

I have regularly ridden buses and experienced no hostility in any part of the city -Jewish or Arab. A smile seems to work just fine.

I have also been constantly surprised but the level of cooperation between the different religious groups fighting over the same bit of land. While the West Bank is another kettle of fish, in the Old City, the Arabs, Christians, Jews and Armenians all seem to live quite civilly side by side, albeit behind their own walls. While you still have to go through metal detects to get into the Jewish Quarter (you can walk freely the other way) it’s all pretty seamless. In fact Reverend Wohlrab said the biggest fighting occurs between the many Christian denominations who can’t agree on who gets which of the Christian holy sites.

He said the respective Christian groups are more likely to stand side by side with the Jews and Muslims than with each other unless there is a gay pride parade in the city in which case all the religions are united in their opposition.

I was also privileged to meet Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa, a devout Palestinian Muslim who is the face of a project called Jerusalem Peacemakers. His family has lived on the Mount of Olives continuously for 1400 years and he opens his home to any stranger that wants a bed. When I visited his home he had about 27 dossers all staying for free.

Myself with Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa and Eliyahu McLean

He says the main problem with the conflict is that no one trusts each other and believes the issues can be solved with love. He has no passport but has visited more than 50 countries in the world discussing peace. He’s even put forward his view at the White House. “How do form a relationship with someone when there is fence in the way? You can’t see their face,” he says of the Separation Wall.

You might look at him initially and dismiss him as a man of any influence. Short and frail in his white robes he had immense respect in the community and is responsible for initiatives like the Jerusalem Hug which brings together people of all religions for a big group hug around the Old City. His grandfather lived until he was 140 and his mother til over 100 so he’s hopeful of peace in his lifetime.

I sat and ate a meal with him in his kitchen – hummus, tomato, cooked potato and carrot and pita. Simple yet effective. Eliyahu McLean, an Orthodox Jew is also with us, his long side curls tied back behind his ears so not to draw attention to himself within this East Jerusalem area we find ourselves in.

The pair have been long time friends and allies in the peace process.

Eliyahu tells me a story about a recent occasion when one of Ibrahim’s family member’s houses was going to be bulldozed by the Israeli Army. Dozens of Muslims lined up in front of the building, rocks in hand, ready to defend the house. Israeli riot police stood on the other side, tear gas and loaded guns at the ready.

When Ibrahim learned of the brewing conflict, he went and stood between the two groups like that iconic image of the loan protester in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He spoke to the young Palestinian boys and told then simply: “There will be no rocks thrown here today.” He then walked up to the Israeli soldiers and told them: “There will be no gun fire here today, no bullets shot, no man maimed or worse.”

While the house was still destroyed, he prevented any bloodshed that may have resulted because of it.


  1. Al Baby says:

    I think there’s a role for you when you finish your trek! Middle East Peacemaker! Go Rit.