Finding Common Ground

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

DAY 7 (final day in Israel)

Our last full day in Israel was low-key in comparison to much of the rest of our trip. We left mid-morning for Abu Gosh a peaceful Israeli village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where a Hebrew-speaking Christian community resides. Abu Gosh is thought by some scholars to be the site of the ancient city of Emmaus where the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples. Of course, like a great deal of things in this area of the world, those claims are disputed and there are several sites in modern day Israel that also claim to be the true site of ancient Emmaus. Abu Gosh is a popular stop for Israelis who want authentic “oriental” food (what we call in the States middle eastern) like hummus.

Our destination however wasn’t the town but the Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary of the Resurrection. Sr Joan Burke SND who is on the trip with us has a good friend from Africa, Sr Elisabeth-Marie Mbwanga who has lived at the Abbey since 1984. They had not seen each other since 1986, so it was a reunion of sorts for them (pictured above, Sr Joan in center with her arm around Sr Elisabeth-Marie). The Abbey is an unusual community because it is made up of both women and men living separately but worshipping together. In addition, in August 2003 the Pope named the monastery’s abbot, Father Jean-Baptiste Gourion, the auxiliary bishop of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem for Hebrew-speaking Catholics. Fr. Gourion, who is unfortunately now quite sick, was born in Algeria in 1934 and raised Jewish. He was baptized into the Catholic faith at age 23 and was ordained a priest nine years later. The
Hebrew Catholic community is small group made up mostly of converts to Christianity who also maintain their Jewish identity. Understandably their very existence is controversial to some people, but they’re committed to living peacefully and quietly with their Jewish and Muslim neighbors.

Our guide at the Abbey was Sr Michaela (also pictured above in white veil) who gave us a tour of the Crusader Church which is adorned with Christian murals with their faces erased. Apparently Muslim crusaders erased the faces when they captured the town many centuries ago. The murals have recently been restored but the figures remain faceless (pictured left).

After our tour of Abu Gosh we returned to Tel Aviv and had a few hours of free time. I decided to wander on the beach and take a swim in the Mediterranean. Because the water temperature was around 60F, it took me a while to get my courage up, so I walked North on the beach which was pretty crowded with families relaxing on the Sabbath. About a half mile from our hotel I came upon a group of a few hundred people milling around the “promenade” (if this were New Jersey we’d call it a boardwalk) while loud music blared from speakers set up on the ground. I went closer and saw a large group of people, inside the circle formed by the crowd, dancing to Jewish folk songs. These weren’t performers though, they were average Israelis joining in on the complicated folk dances (apparently the music and dances are taught in Israeli schools and the Mayor’s office in Tel Aviv provides the DJ).

I lingered there for a while and watched as new songs were played and people ran out to participate in new dances (pictured right). I was struck by the joy on the faces of all the dancers. After meeting many people with differing opinions about the conflict here and the prospects for peace and after witnessing the physical effects of the Israeli government’s policies I’ll admit that I’ve felt that–though the issue is enormously complicated–there is an injustice being perpetrated against Palestinians in this region of the world. I’ve also been struck by the fact that Israelis and Palestinians clearly are not on an equal footing in negotiating for peace. Israel is far too powerful militarily and economically for this to be an equal fight. Yet standing on the beach in Tel Aviv and seeing Jews from different backgrounds and different parts of the world dancing with such joyful abandon I thought how special it must feel for Jews to know there is a place in the world that they can call home. A place where they are not only free to be Jewish but they are encouraged to revel in their Jewish-ness. And, even though it doesn’t erase all that I’d seen and felt about the conflict here over the past week, it helped me to understand a little better how important the state of Israel is for Jews.

I took a brisk five minute dip into the water (pictured left) after which I realized I could never be a member of the Polar Bear club–who apparently have a small but devoted Tel Aviv chapter (pictured below). Ahhhhh…to be free, Russian and unencumbered by restrictive American notions of “appropriate” swimwear.

I headed back to the bus for our final excursion.

We went to Joffa, an ancient port city where, according to the New Testament, St. Peter had a vision. Joffa is part of modern Tel Aviv, so it was just a few minutes heading South on the beach to get there. We celebrated mass in St Peter’s Church there and then headed back to our hotel to get ready for our final dinner together in Israel (group picture).