Jerusalem feels tense right now but for some, the unease in the capital can offer an opportunity to think about coexistence.
That’s the approach of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim participants in “Imagine,” an event that took place Wednesday afternoon and evening at the city’s Museum on the Seam as part of the current Manofim art season festival.
Pegged as a multidisciplinary art event taking place at the seam zone between West and East Jerusalem, “Imagine” was a collaboration of Manofim, the museum, the Muslala artists group and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.
The event began with a guided tour of Muslala’s exhibition, “And at Its Heart – A Wall,” displayed along the city’s former seam line.
The seam line was the border that once existed between Israel and Jordan when the neighboring country controlled East Jerusalem. The museum is located on the former border in a Palestinian house that served as a Israeli military outpost overlooking the Mandelbaum Gate, the sole passageway between the two parts of the divided city.
The second part of the event, prayers and reflections on peace, took place in the museum, with six speakers — two from each of the three faiths represented — and a series of musical interludes. At the end, there was a tour of the museum’s current exhibit, “And the Trees Went Forth to Seek a King,” a look at the complex interrelationship between leaders and their subjects.
It’s an admirable change for one evening, commented Dr. Deborah Weissman, one of the evening’s speakers and co-vice chairperson of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and immediate past president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
“I’m going to say this evening that I don’t think religion is the only channel of dialogue,” said Weissman. “It interests me most, but another channel is art, another channel is music, another channel is soccer, which I don’t do, or cooking together. Dialogue has to be on many, many levels, everything we do in a human way that we can share with each other.”
Weissman is a longtime interfaith leader, having lived in Israel for 42 years and engaged in the interfaith world for the last 26 years. Right now, however, she feels the situation is worse than it’s been for a long time.
“I think there is a bit of a disconnect between people who do dialogue and people who run the leadership on both sides,” she said. “There’s been a retreat from the position that says, ‘Look, we really have to live together, how do we make that happen?’”
Rabbi Joel Levy, who teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva and offered one of the event’s prayers, commented that interfaith work is a long-term challenge, one that can’t be initiated at a moment’s notice when things are tense. Prayer, however, can be helpful, he noted.
“You want people to manage to transcend their more nationalistic religious traditions and be able to see the image of God within everyone in the world, and to manage to be in touch with that and be more open to listen to each other’s narratives,” said Levy. “Not to say, ‘listen to me,’ but in a space where people can listen to each other carefully.”
The organizers were hoping that the combination of art, prayer and music could help accomplish that.
The event was planned months ago, said Weissman, during a difficult summer that saw a dramatic rise in racial incitement from both the Palestinian and Jewish camps.
“There was a vehemence that broke out during the summer,” she said. “I understand that it was motivated by fear, by the tunnels found, it’s legitimate, but to jump from fear to saying ‘death to the Arabs,’ or something is a jump that is unacceptable in a democracy.”
Weissman said she hoped the evening’s event could be an example of how to get along and pray together in different languages, but with the same essential goal of living together in the divine image.
Interfaith work isn’t easy in Israel, said Father David Neuhaus, who also offered a prayer at the gathering.
Neuhaus is an Israeli Jesuit Catholic priest who leads two congregations in Israel — Hebrew-speaking Catholics, and the large, diverse community of asylum seekers and migrant workers.
He said he prefers inter-religious dialogue within context.
“When I’m asked to speak, I try to discern whether the dialogue is going to actually deal with the context, to what extent are we free to bring up the day-to-day life of the people we represent and that is very much influenced by the conflict,” he said. “Let’s talk about our traditions and find out what we have in common.”
That was all part of the plan for the evening, along with discussing new possibilities for shared living. What also matters is whether those who attend are able to look themselves more self-critically in order to become peacemakers, added Neuhaus.
“What we’re seeing in Jerusalem is more of the same but it keeps on taking on new forms,” said Neuhaus, who has lived in Israel for nearly 40 years, since he was 15 years old. “There’s more intolerance, more refusal of the other, more hatred, more violence, but that’s all been here as long as I can remember.”
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