Hisham*, an Arab, and Miriam*, a Jew, are both 16. They grew up in Israel in a climate where suspicion, even full-blown hate, has set the tone of each towards the other.
The boy and girl are friends now – their friendship has this one thing in common: a faith alien to the predominant core of their respective cultures.
They have come to know each other through “Musalaha“, an organisation working in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. True to its name, Musalaha – Arabic for “conciliation” – aims to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Established in 1990, the charity runs camps where both Jewish and Arab teenagers can meet in a new place and learn new things about themselves and the “others”.
Recently, 10 Jewish and 10 Arab teenagers, all living in Israel – together with four leaders – journeyed together. All describe themselves as followers of Christ: the Jewish youths are part of Messianic congregations – ethnic Jews who maintain their faith in “Yeshua” (Jesus) as the promised Jewish Messiah – while the Arabs are members of their community’s Christian minority.
Their faith is put to the test to see if their common belief in the Gospel of reconciliation can overcome their opposing communities’ entrenched hate.
All the people in my neighbourhood are what I call ‘super-super right wing’.
Miriam lives in a Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem. “I hardly meet any Arabs in my everyday life,” she says.
“There was one Arab girl in my school, but she left. No surprise there! All the people in my neighbourhood are what I call ‘super-super right wing’. All of them hate Arabs and keep telling each other so. If I don’t say that I hate Arabs, they really won’t understand. That’s why I love Musalaha – this is the only place where I meet Arabs and can be friends with them.”
Hisham lives in Nazareth, among a predominantly Arab community in northern Israel. For him, though, it is impossible not to encounter Jewish people every day. Since one of his parents is a foreigner, it’s easy for him to disguise himself as a foreign tourist. “When I speak English and behave like a foreigner, people are nice. When they find out I’m Arab, they often change their behaviour and begin to distrust me,” he says.
Hisham shares how among his fellow Arabs the re-establishment of Israel as a modern state in 1948 is called the “Nakba” (or “Disaster”); 700,000 Palestinians fled from their homes, making room for more Jews to live therein.
For Palestinians it’s a narrative of struggle and fighting in order to return home. For Jews, it’s the opposite narrative of making it “home” again – against all odds – where they can live free after countless massacres.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem are struggling with the conflict every day. They are more hardened in their judgement.
Hisham comes from a moderate family himself; still many Palestinians remain vengeful, some even violent towards Israelis.
During a Musalaha meeting, they have been discussing prejudices and trying to overcome them, this time through a Biblical narrative that both sides share. Songs are sung, in Hebrew and Arabic, and fierce debates about faith and politics are not shunned.
Why do many Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts fail while Musalaha seems to be achieving bringing the two sides together? “We bring our faith into it. That is the difference,” Miriam says. “When Christ is in the centre, eventually all differences become less important.”
Hisham agrees. “Jesus has come to bring peace among the nations,” he says. “He told us to love not only our brothers, but also our neighbours, even our enemies. His teaching has helped us to really open up towards each other and to overcome the culture we grew up in.”
The first step in fixing problems is to admit them, Hisham explains.
“Most people in our country never get to that first step. Gradually we have learned here to accept that neither of the parties in the conflict is fully right or fully wrong. That’s another important step in understanding each other,” he says. “Most people on both sides want peace. They just don’t know how to get it.”
Hisham lives in a relatively easy-going part of Israel, for an Arab. “For Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, it’s more difficult,” he says. “They are struggling with the conflict every day. It’s harder for them to say: ‘Yes, we can fix this’. They will be more hardened in their judgement.”
Miriam expects more from her Messianic Jewish congregation: “Yes, in our church we pray for peace. But in practice most people will do nothing to achieve it. They just say: ‘Let’s wait for Jesus to return’; until then, they don’t feel they should act on it. I say: ‘If you really want peace, work on it’.”
Miriam hopes to bring the cross-cultural friendships she gained during the camp back home and build upon them in Israel.
“What we have experienced here is reconciliation built upon the love of Christ,” she says.
Pinning her hopes on representatives of two minority communities within their larger communities, she says: “My prayer is that our generation will lead the way to full reconciliation between our people.”
*(Not their real names, withheld for their safety.)