We’ve just finished the first full day of JRC’s Israel/Palestine study tour – which we devoted to understanding and experiencing Jerusalem as a “shared holy city.” While this might sound like an obvious fact, many Jews today (including myself) have been raised and socialized to regard Israel, if you will, as a “Jewish city that just happens to be important to some other faiths as well.”
To this end we made a point of visiting and spending time at the three main holy sites of the city: the Western Wall, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Afterwards we met with two Shaykh Yusuf Abu Sneina, Imam of the al-Aqsa mosque and Rabbi Yechiel Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights. Tomorrow morning we’ll be meeting with Revered Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Institute to round out our visits with faith leaders.
Our tour is being led by Aziz Abu Sarah and Kobi Skolnick – who are Palestinian and Israeli respectively. Both Aziz and Kobi are remarkable individuals with powerful personal stories. Aziz is a native of Jerusalem who became radicalized at a young age after the death of his older brother at the hands of the IDF. He became active in the youth movement of Fatah and participated extensively in Palestinian resistance actions during the First Intifada.
Aziz has since become actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian coexistence work. He was one of the original staff members of the Bereaved Parents Circle and works with Rabbi Marc Gopin at the Institute for Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Aziz and Rabbi Gopin have also founded Mejdi, a business that promotes coexistence through educational tourism and small business cooperation. (You can read an extensive interview with Aziz here.)
Kobi’s story is no less amazing. Born into a Chabad family in Israel, he moved to a settlement in the West Bank during his high school years. There he become a member of Kach – the Jewish extremist movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane that actively promotes violence against Palestinians. During his service in the Israeli army Kobi went though a personal transformation as he confronted the reality of the conflict.
Today, Kobi is highly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement – he was one of the original members of Breaking the Silence and now studies conflict resolution. He travels widely as a trained mediator and facilitator.
Among other things, the genuine friendship between Aziz and Kobi has powerfully affected the members of our group. Considering their respective backgrounds and personal journeys, their working relationship and very obvious affection for one another is moving and inspiring indeed. (The picture above was taken this morning at next to the Dome of the Rock. That’s me in the middle, with Aziz on the left and Kobi on the right.)
Tomorrow we’re off to tour East Jerusalem and Bethlehem before spending two nights in the Deheishe refugee camp. Stay tuned.