Last spring I got a call from a friend who said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine. I think he can shed some light on the Israeli situation for your KIVU Gap Year Students.” We re-arranged our schedule a bit, and took the bus towards one of the settlements outside of Jerusalem.
As the bus drove up to the entrance, I noticed heavy security. Soldiers with big guns were guarding the gate, and I thought to myself I wonder what’s so scary that people have to employ these kind of guards in their homes? But I was quickly put at ease when Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger came running toward the bus. He invited us into his home for a time of learning and understanding.
The Students had just come from Hebron, one of those towns you are probably reading about in the news, so they were well versed in the conflict down by the Mosque of the Patriarchs where Abraham and Sarah are buried.
We sat around the living room as this incredible scholar of the Torah started in by saying, “I’m a Jew. I’m a Rabbi. I’m a Zionist. I’m a Settler. I’m an Israeli citizen.” To which most of the students looked at me and and I could tell by the stares they wanted to ask, What is all that mean?
And for the next hour, The Rabbi unpacked what all those words meant to him.
As a practicing Jew in the Holy Land, many of the labels people use can either evoke good feelings or deep hatred depending on where you were born, what religion you belong to, or how you see “the other.” And as my Palestinian friend sat next to me, I could feel the tension rising in the room.
After the Rabbi spent 30 min. explaining what it means to be a Jew, a Rabbi, a Zionist, and a Settler, his tone shifted, and he said, “But 15 months ago, I met my first Palestinian. I was invited to a dinner where Jews and Palestinians were meeting, and I thought I would go and see who showed up.” My Palestinian friend’s eyes stared wide at our new Rabbi friend wondering what was going to come next.
He told us the story of how he wound up at a large BBQ with Jews and Palestinians, but he had to go by himself. His family was worried, because all they knew of Palestinians were the rocks thrown at their car when they left their neighborhood. He told us his wife warned him not to go because she thought they would kill him. But intent to stretch his own worldview, he forged ahead and walked nearly 20 minutes to the venue where the meal was taking place.
He told us of his arrival. He walked in the gate and the first person he met was a Palestinian who welcomed him with a smile and a handshake. He told us how, during the normal smalltalk, they figured out how they lived only a few yards away from each other as children, but were separated by a big wall. He told us how all the preconceptions he had about Palestinians were shattered when the group asked him to pray with them. And ultimately he told us how the situation in Israel was in such turmoil because both people groups were trained to fear one another.
“I can tell you with all honesty, Palestinians were not a part of the narrative I wanted to believe.” Meaning, he was so wrapped up in the story of Israel and the need for the nation to be restored, that he removed a whole people group from his mind. It was like they were invisible people to him for so long, and now his worldview was in a great tension. What do you do when your perceived enemy actually loves and cares for you?
The Rabbi went on to tell us of his work bringing his Palestinian friends to the neighborhood. He e-mailed all the people on his street to invite them to a meeting to meet his new Palestinian friend, and you can probably imagine the remarks.
You’re inviting a Terrorist to our homes?
We can’t believe the journey you’re on, but threatening our lives?
And in the end, he had 40 of his neighbors at a meal to sit down and eat with someone they thought was surely an enemy.
I could go on writing for hours, but in truth; the most important lesson I learned that day was that our worldview often can get in the way of loving people. Sure, there are bad people in the world. There are bad Palestinians, and there are bad Israelis. Just like there are bad Americans, and bad Christians. But the overwhelming majority of people are people. They love the same way we love. They believe similar things about life, growing a family, and freedom. And sometimes we have to get out of our own way to learn to give people a chance to love. Sometimes it takes a long look into what we think is right and true, and test it.
Believe me, I know, it’s risky.
The obvious risk is safety.
But probably more intricate to our own humanity is the risk that all we’ve thought to be may be challenged.
Rabbi Hanan is in the United States for the next two weeks, and his schedule is included here. I would challenge you, if you’re in an area he is visiting, go by and listen. Especially in these tense times in the Holy Land, Rabbi Schlesinger is doing something very few media outlets will post. His message of Loving God and Loving Others is an inspiration to me to reach out to people in my own sphere of influence who may be labeled as unlovable. The Rabbi’s Tour Schedule
Or if you’re interested in reading his latest post on what’s going on in the Holy Land. Check this out.
Tomorrow, a Story from My Palestinian friend. You won’t want to miss it.