Jane Harris presents the questions and debates from the second annual conference of the International Association for Spiritual Care in the third installment of her blog series.
One of the aims of our visit this time was to take part in a conference in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Beit Jala entitled ‘Healing Hatred: Spiritual Challenges in a Context of Political Conflict’. This was the 2nd annual conference of the International Association for Spiritual Care (IASC). This organisation describes its mission as enhancing ‘the capacities of scholars and practitioners worldwide in acquiring, disseminating and applying knowledge of theory and practice of spiritual care with an emphasis on interdisciplinary, interreligious and intercultural scholarly investigation.’ Given this description, one might have expected the conference to be quite dry and academic. This was not, however, the case. Yes, those who made presentations or engaged in panel discussions were highly qualified and backed up their points with research. At the same time most presenters also spoke from their own experience and illustrated their talks with personal stories that had had a transforming effect on them. As a result the conference was highly moving and potentially life-changing for those who attended.
This was a real attempt to address existential questions across political, religious and social divides. Partners in the organisation of the conference included the Hebrew Union College (where the first sessions took place – in a synagogue) and the Holy Land Trust, a non-violent peace organisation based in Bethlehem on the West Bank, as well as the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. The audience during the first two days of the conference were mostly liberal Jews, whilst the last day took place in the Bethlehem Bible College in Bethlehem and was designed so that Palestinians could address issues on their own with international colleagues. A final session including food and music brought everyone back together in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem.
Questions discussed went to the heart of the conflict, and included: ‘How should Palestinians Respond to Israeli Trauma?’, ‘Unlocking Israeli Indifference to Palestinian Trauma’, ‘Abuse of Religion in the Name of Politics’ and ‘What makes people change?’ There were also workshops which presented some more practical methodologies, including one from our AVP team.
Understanding the Trauma of the Other
As is so often the case, the presentations which were particularly moving were rooted in personal experience. One of the first speakers was Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi who, in 2014, was forced to resign from his post at al-Quds University after he took a group of 27 Palestinian students to visit the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. We need to stop the reciprocity of victimhood, he said, and do things because they are the right things to do. Both peoples – Israelis and Palestinians – are both victims and perpetrators. Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust, had undergone a similar transformation. After the 2nd Intifada his organisation concentrated largely on non-violent activism, but he then started to ask questions. He noticed the levels of hatred which the Israelis had towards the Palestinians and wanted to understand where these strong feelings and behaviours came from. He too visited Auschwitz, and discovered a story he had never been told, enabling him to understand an existential fear and need for security in Israeli society.
Stereotypes and the Power of Human Encounter
Addressing what makes people change, Professor Rafi Walden, past President of Physicians for Human Rights, told us a story of a young Palestinian who had been brought to his hospital, injured in the leg by an Israeli soldier. Several times he and his colleagues asked him if he could move his leg, so as to ascertain whether they could perform surgery on him. His only response, as he looked at his carers with seeming hatred was ‘jihad’. At least one of the medical team was of the opinion that they should refuse to treat him, but they took him into the operating theatre and – after a long and difficult operation – his leg was saved. As he lay recovering, his father arrived and thanked Professor Walden profusely for saving his son Jihad. Only then did they realise that Jihad was the boy’s name. We are reminded that the primary meaning of ‘jihad’ (al-harb in Arabic) is ‘struggle’ or ‘striving’ – often an inner struggle to become a better believer. Once we are able to see our ‘enemy’ face to face as a human being, prejudices and stereotypes are stripped away. Professor Walden reminded us that ‘caring for others’ is mentioned in the Torah at least 36 times.
Addressing religious fundamentalism, Dr. Tomer Persico argued that this is a modern phenomenon, and cited two examples – the radical settler movement ‘Hilltop Youth’ and the obsession amongst Zionists that Jews should be able to ascend the Temple Mount (a survey in 2014 showed that 75% of Zionists were in favour of this). He argued that although revenge may be a natural reaction, it doesn’t come from the original Jewish tradition but is rather a legacy from European romanticism. Likewise ascent to the Temple Mount was traditionally forbidden in Judaism, since that which is sacred was regarded as something set apart and to be respected. The ‘right’ to ascend the Temple Mount has gone hand in hand with ideas of nationalism, ownership and sovereignty, making sole claims with total disregard for the Other. Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur cited the example of a Catholic church burnt down by extremists in the Galilee and the quote that was left behind to ‘justify’ this act: “and the idols shall be cut down.” This is a direct quote from a 15th century Jew, Isaac Abarbanel, who was expelled from Spain – and reflects the practice of quoting selectively from the Torah or from history. He argued that the Jewish tradition across the centuries is a more humanitarian and loving one and gave quotes from a more contemporary Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Two of these suffice:
“We must not regard any human institution or object as being an end in itself. Man’s achievements in this world are but attempts, and a temple that comes to mean more than a reminder of the living God is an abomination.” (1955)
“The tree of hatred is the tree of death…. People hate those who make them feel their own inferiority. The prophets of Israel taught us that those who cherish the use of force are themselves consumed by force….” (1972)
This conference addressed deep-seated and wide-ranging issues. Many significant things were said and very personal experiences shared. As the memories fade, however, one speaker stands out above the rest. This was neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian but Father Michael Lapsley, whose experience of overcoming hatred is rooted in apartheid South Africa. Expelled from South Africa because he used his role as National University Chaplain to speak out about the shootings, detentions and torture of his black students after the Soweto riots in 1976, he spent 16 years in exile as a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and chaplain to the liberation movement in exile. In April 1990, 3 months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he was sent a letter bomb from South Africa, disguised as religious literature. He lost both hands and the sight of one eye in the blast, and was seriously burned. Supported by love and prayers from around the world, he began a journey from victim to survivor to victor. He returned to South Africa in 1993 and became Chaplain of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town.
Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust talking to Father Michael Lapsley
Father Lapsley’s words rang true because they came from his own experience of being a victim of and overcoming hatred. He reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s words:
“No-one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background or his religion. They need to be taught to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can also learn to love.”
The Israelis and Palestinians need to set up spaces for talking and listening, he said, and to be creative in bringing people together, since separation keeps hatred alive. At the same time, healing is not a substitute for the struggle for justice, and both processes need to happen at the same time. He reminded us that the Old Testament prophets understood the relationship between justice and conflict. “And what does the Lord require of you?” asked Micah: ”To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.8). Injustice, he said, endangers the safety and security of the future of the Israeli state. Another way would be to engage in restorative justice, which seeks to restore the balance. He also reminded us that there were many Nelson Mandelas in South Africa, and that healing had to come from the people themselves.
Pushing the Limits….
The subject matter of this conference was controversial and there were times when wounds opened and gaping hurts were exposed. The last speaker of the first two days in Jerusalem was a clinician working to heal trauma in Gaza. He talked about asking a patient to think of a safe space, and the patient not being able to think of one, since in Gaza a whole population is living in trauma. Towards the end of his talk he referred to Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada breaking the arms of children in Gaza so that they couldn’t throw stones. Was this truth or myth? Hard to tell, but in any case it was shocking – and too much for one participant who stormed out shouting something about ‘body parts’. And so the cycle of hatred continues, fed by stories, truths and myths which keep images of the Other alive and prevent healing. The speaker suggested that children in Gaza should be put in touch with children in Israel so that they could connect with one another and create a new identity. It is initiatives like these, if only they could be implemented, that may sow new seeds of hope.
The other side of the coin emerged as we listened to Sami Awad from the Holy Land Trust and Michael Lapsley in conversation in the Bethlehem Bible College on the third day. Sami told us that a statement against the conference had been issued by the Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement in Palestine, since it was seen as a ‘normalisation’ event. In the Israel-Palestine conflict ‘normalisation’ refers to any way in which Palestinians are led to see the present status quo (i.e. Occupation) as normal, and has been extended to include any collaboration or rapprochement with the occupiers (See recent +972 blog for more details). Referring to the history of the South African struggle, Michael Lapsley said that those struggling for justice supported BDS because it was seen as a way of shortening the struggle. However, at the same time Nelson Mandela was talking to the South African government. It was not a case of either or, but both and. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not the same as the South African struggle, of course, but it is worth asking what we as internationals can do to promote peace in the region and above all what is effective. Bringing people from both sides together is of course a good thing to do and necessary to foster empathy, but the conflict won’t be solved unless we also help to remove the root cause of injustice and inequality – i.e. the Occupation.
Messages of Hope and Empowerment
It was good that the conference ended with contributions from two strong women. The first was Huda Abu Arqoub, Regional Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), an organisation with over a 100 members. Huda started her talk by telling us a story of her father and grandfather going on a journey from Hebron to Haifa and Beirut and back via Damascus – a journey that could only be dreamt of today! She also shared memories of her childhood in Palestine, characterised by the importance of education and creativity. The second speaker was Sarah Snyder, who is Advisor for Reconciliation to the Archbishop of Canterbury and has a wide-ranging international experience of peace-building and dialogue. Asked why there are not more peace women in Palestine, Huda replied that there are, but they are not seen, recognised and acknowledged! She also referred to the Israeli movement ‘ Women Wage Peace’, formed from the need for women not to send their sons to war. Only the week-end before women from this movement had stood in 150 places in Israel and demonstrated.
And so we ended on a note of hope. Looking at the list of members of ALLMEP – including Combatants for Peace, Kids4Peace, Neve Shalom, Parents’ Circle, the Holy Land Trust – one could be forgiven for asking why peace has not already broken out. At the moment political forces, fear and inaction on behalf of the international community hold the perpetuation of injustice and hatred in the region in place. There are however stirrings amongst ordinary people who thirst for a different reality and are willing to stand up for change. If this were to become a mass popular movement political leaders would be forced to take note, and the tide of change would be irresistible. Sarah Snyder gave a quote from Northern Ireland, that “Peace is a mystery – a walking into the unknown.” Well then, let’s walk bravely into the unknown and do what we can for peace.