Finding Common Ground

A first-hand exploration of the conflict between Israel and Palestine

Editorial Note: Through Father Tom Ryan of the Paulist office for ecumenical and interfaith relations BustedHalo Editor, Bill McGarvey was asked to participate in a study mission to Israel from Jan 1-Jan 9. The purpose of the trip is to meet with both Israelis and Palestinians to get some sense of what this conflict–which we see constantly played out on our tv screens and the front page of our newspapers–is like firsthand.

The trip is being sponsored in part by a group called the American Israeli Friendship League (AIFL) and they are being led by Sister Carol Rittner who has written numerous books on genocide and the Holocaust and is a professor at Stockton State College. The rest of the group consists of 15 people (12 women 3 men) from the US, Canada and Northern Ireland. All are Catholics–including a number of priests and women religious–and a significant number of my fellow travelers work in NGO’s (non-Govt Orgs) at the United Nations.

Due to the busy schedule while Bill is there and the fact that he must find an internet cafe during the minimal downtime in order to access the web, Bill will only be able to offer a very brief snapshot of what he’s seeing and doing there. He will elaborate more in articles when he returns. –Mike Hayes, Operations Director


We flew out of Newark in the afternoon on Saturday, January 1 and arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday morning. Prior to this trip I’d heard from friends that if you ask a dozen people in Israel what they think of the political situation that I’d get 12 very different–and very strong–opinions.

I found this out to be true the minute we took off from Newark. I was seated next to a 28-year old Israeli named Tomar, a recent graduate from med school in Israel who was traveling back home after taking a test in the States in order to do his residency there. Tomar was born and raised in Israel, his father, who has since passed away, was a “war invalid” who was injured in combat at the age of 19 while serving in the Israeli army and had become a paraplegic. As soon as Tomar realized that this was my first trip to Israel and what the nature of our journey was he ripped a page out of his notebook and began drawing a map of Israel on a sheet of looseleaf paper. With great enthusiasm he explained the various wars Israel had fought since its founding in 1948 and how they affected their boundaries. Tomar seemed to have a keen grasp of his country’s history (as most people here seem to have) and like all Israelis, had served in the Israeli army for 2 years and will continue to serve one month each year until he’s 50. While his commitment to the survival of Israel was unmistakable, his belief and hope for peace also seemed very sincere. Tomar seemed genuinely interested in hearing my reactions to what I see on our trip. My initial impressions are that Tomar’s sense of passion, open-ness and interest in what outsiders think about Israel is relatively common here…

Following our flight we headed straight to Jerusalem via bus and checked into our hotel, The Notre Dame Center, which is owned by the Vatican and is right across the street from what is called The Old City in Jerusalem. my window overlooks the Old City’s “New Gate.”

After checking in, we immediately went to a meeting (pictured, left) a few blocks from our hotel at Jerusalem City Hall. We were supposed to meet with the Mayor, but due to sickness he was unable to attend. The minister for religious relations, Mordechai Lewy, a former Israeli diplomat presided instead along with the Deputy Mayor for Comunications, Morie Glaser.

Mr. Lewy spoke a great deal about religious relations and the educational system in Jerusalem. He mentioned that in all his years in the Foreign Service he’s always believed that the Vatican was the only real player in Christian relations internationally. Since starting his new position he has come to realize that “Jerusalem is the only place in the world where the Pope isn’t a big fish.”

Indeed, our subsequent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, where tradition has it that Jesus was crucified and laid in a tomb made it clear that in addition to the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches all hold a claim to sites in the Holy Land. The church of the Holy Sepulcher is, in fact shared by all these churches–each of them has altars and chapels throughout the building, so the Greek Orthodox priests are conducting services in one area of the church while Franciscan priests are doing a benediction (pictured, right) in another part and the Russian orthodox are clearing people away from a shrine.

Sunday evening the AIFL had a welcome dinner for us at the Jerusalem YMCA, a beautiful building that was built in the 1930s near the King David Hotel. AIFL Board Member, David Harmen spoke to us about the current state of affairs in Israel and spoke specifically about education. Dr. Harmen is the son of prominent Israelis–his father was the President of the prestigious Hebrew University–and Dr. Harmen himself is an expert in literacy who has taught at Harvard and Columbia.

By the time dinner was over i’d been up for approxiamtely 36 hours straight…I went back to the hotel and crashed…hard.