The Art of Change: Kent Pastor Returns from Israel

Creating a hopeful future for the Holy Land will be as much a work of art as engineering.

My parents born in Israel.  My grandfathers and mothers and I born in Israel, and I want to make future for Israel.  --  Samer Othmaneh, an Arab Israeli

Since the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine, far too many armed conflicts and dozens of diplomatic initiatives have failed to engineer a lasting peace for the diverse peoples of this land – Muslim, Druze, Christian, Jew, Arab, Israeli, Palestinian.  The power of governments and armies can bend borders, build or dismantle settlements, divert water and erect walls in pursuit of security, but such forces are manifestly incapable of transforming the bad blood that regularly poisons hopes for the future.

Creating a hopeful future for this land will be as much a work of art as engineering, sculpting new relationships in truth, reconciliation and common cause.  On my recent visit to Israel I met several artists of change who give me hope for its future.

Samer Othmaneh (quoted above) is director of the Face to Face program at Givat Haviva, an educational center promoting mutual responsibility, civic equality and cooperation between divided groups in Israel.  Face to Face brings together Israeli Jewish and Arab high school students for two-day seminars that allow them to see each other in a new way, aiming to reduce alienation and create a foundation of mutual respect.  Thousands of young people are reached every year through this program which strains to keep up with increasing demand. (http://www.givathaviva.org.il/english)

Said Abu Shakra is founder and director of the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery perched on an urban hillside overlooking the “green line” that separates the State of Israel from the Palestinian Authority.  A passionate advocate for what he calls the “art of change,” Said’s gallery features original contemporary Arab Palestinian work, encourages multicultural dialogue and, unlike many institutions in this land, emphasizes the empowerment of women.  Said and other leaders of the gallery community – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – are organizing now to build in Umm el-Fahem the first Arab museum of contemporary art.  They have procured a site and held a blind competition for design of the new facility.  The winning architects were Jewish, an unexpected result in keeping with Said’s vision.  “Everybody here comes to touch the culture and the memory of the other,” he says.  (http://umelfahemgallery.org)

Annat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, an arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, which is committed to advancing pluralism, combating racism, and defending freedoms of conscience, faith and religion for all people in Israel.  She is also leader of Women of the Wall, a group of religiously observant Jewish women who advocate for freedom of worship.  Recently she was arrested and roughly treated by the police for saying out loud the Sh’ma Israel, Judaism’s central proclamation of faith, and wearing a tallit, the traditional prayer shawl, at the Western Wall, Israel’s holiest site.  Hoffman’s witness has drawn thousands of new supporters to the cause of pluralism and equal rights.  By the time this writing appears she will have organized another gathering of women in prayer at the Western Wall, this time with a group of men, from their side of the divide, helping her to circumvent restrictions imposed by Orthodox rabbis.  (http://www.irac.org)  (http://womenofthewall.org.il)

Bashar el-Masri, a Palestinian-American entrepreneur and chairman of Massar International is building a magnificent new city, Rawabi, in the hills outside Ramallah, with panoramic views of the countryside extending west to the Mediterranean.  Admittedly, this is a planned community for the upwardly mobile, but what a plan it is: 23 “neighborhoods” with a total of 5,000 housing units organized in homeowner’s associations without exclusion walls or fences; regional banks providing mortgages with a 15-20 per cent down payment; public and private schools; entertainment, commercial and business developments creating 3,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs; parks and public spaces; mosques and churches.  This is not just imagination.  Three phases are under construction and the first neighborhood will be ready for occupancy later this year.  The first three schools are going up on the same schedule, one of them co-educational!  Sales are brisk, with secular people and religious, young professionals and families not just buying into a real estate concept but investing in a new vision of Palestine.  Perhaps it is not yet God’s “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” but it is an artful economic end run around political impasse, and it invites aspiration to a prosperous and peaceful Palestine.  Bashar el-Masri and others like him creating opportunity and generating new wealth may do as much as anyone to shape a hopeful future for this land.  (www.rawabi.ps)

Rabbi Arik Ascherman is director of special projects and external relations with Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization giving voice to a foundational ethic of Zionism and of the Jewish religious tradition which understands that justice and law are synonymous.  Arik is an American-born Harvard graduate who moved to Israel in 1993, and he is fervently Jewish in his passionate commitment to HRH’s mission: coordinating a coalition of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal rabbis in advocacy for the poor in Israel, support for the rights of Israel’s minorities and Palestinians, and advocacy for the equal status of women.  Rabbi Ascherman and others like him work in the media and the courts, lobby politicians and government officials, and sometimes put their bodies on the line to shield the vulnerable from injustice, for example, defending Palestinians who face home demolitions and land seizures in the West Bank.  Arik tells the story of his coming to the aid of a Palestinian boy arrested by Israeli police, a non-violent bystander caught up in a demonstration where some had thrown stones.  Arriving on the scene he found the boy, barely more than a child, injured and terrified, strapped spread-eagle to the front of a police vehicle.  Arik chastised the arresting officers and persuaded them to untie the boy and treat him properly.  Later, when the boy appeared in court, Arik heard him testify that he didn’t remember much out of all the confusion and pain, but he did recall that a tall curly-haired man wearing a kippah (the traditional Jewish skullcap) had intervened to help him.  Telling my group this story, Arik observed that an injustice which might have yielded nothing more than trauma and hate became an opportunity for some hope in a future moving toward reconciliation.  He said, “I don’t do this just because I believe it is faithful, or just because I think it’s right, but because it is my self interest.  It is the best thing I can be doing for the future of my family, my community and my country.”  He added, “You never know what little act may tip the scales in the right direction.”  (www.rhr.org.il/eng)

In some circles these days it is fashionable to despair in the future of Israel, to dismiss the possibility of constructive engagement, suggesting that there is no progressive option.  The results of the most recent Israeli elections and my recent experiences in the Holy Land, with the new friends I’ve made, lead me to believe otherwise.  There is an artful realignment of relationships building in this land of promise.  Now is not a time to despair, nor to withdraw, nor to divest; this is a moment that calls people of good will to engage with progressive partners, tipping the scales in the right direction, moving history toward justice.

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