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Jerusalem through the eyes of three faiths

Ralph Genende
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Published: 21 October 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Tension between the universal and the particular is epitomised in the divisions and unity of Jerusalem. An interfaith tour enabled RALPH GENENDE to appreciate both.

Several years ago, a group of Melbourne Jews, Christians and Muslims embarked on a journey to Jerusalem. I took part in that journey. The journey impelled me not only to reflect on my years of interfaith engagement but also to encounter firsthand the challenges and limitations and the joys and opportunities of the interaction. It was both harder and easier than I had anticipated, and it left me both less confident and more convinced about the importance of interfaith dialogue.

There is nothing better for encouraging faiths to recognise what unites and differentiates them than travelling together. And when the destination is Jerusalem, there is nothing more complicated.

Jerusalem united and divided Jews and Christians for centuries. Spiritual birthplace of Jesus, locus of his yearnings and many of his teachings, Jerusalem is also where he confronted Jewish power and the dream places of his people. It would become, over the centuries, one of the conflict points between Jews and Christians. During medieval times (especially at the time of the Crusades), it would represent not only the powerlessness and persecution of the Jews but also their "replacement" by Christianity. Since the Jews had rejected the Christian messiah, God had rejected them, made a new covenant, and chosen a new Israel.

We are formed by both our commonalities and our differences. This is the central challenge for Jews, Christians and Muslims in this tiny fateful land.

And it was here in Jerusalem that Muslim conquerors, the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans, would assert their dominance over the city. They too would look down on the Jews because they did not embrace Islam. Islam had supported and superseded Judaism, albeit recognising Judaism as paving the way for the Prophet.

As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observed, Jerusalem, as capital of the independent State of Israel, "continues to be a major obstacle to the restoration of the Caliphate, the imperial dream by al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hizballah." To arrive in contemporary Israel, to live in Jerusalem for a week with Christians and Muslims, is therefore bound to challenge and confront. And this is despite those who self-selected for the joint journey being brave enough to give interfaith, if not peace, a good chance.

Humanity, as many Jewish thinkers have suggested, is constantly threatened by the tension between the unique and the universal. In truth, we are formed by both our commonalities and our differences.

This is the central challenge for Jews, Christians and Muslims in this tiny fateful land to which God summoned Abraham, father of our three faiths some four thousand years ago.

Our little group had no pretensions about our capacity to meet this challenge. But moving in this contested political and geographical city, we hoped at least to acknowledge each other’s unique theological space as well as to pay our respects to the bridges that cross these spaces and the subterranean spiritual tunnels that link them. We did this by exploring Jewish Jerusalem with a Jewish guide, Christian Jerusalem with a Christian guide and Muslim Jerusalem with a Muslim guide.

In each quarter, we thrilled at our common language and embrace of spirituality. I was struck by how the city touched us all. The Muslims rose at 4:00 am to catch the light of the first morning prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram al-Sharif. They were excited by the muezzin’s call to prayer and the many glimpses of the Holy Prophet but especially by the cobbled corners of the Muslim Quarter. For the Christians, it was the geographical grounding of their faith, the stunning evocation of the real vital life in the places where their Saviour had walked and taught. For Eva, one of the Christian participants, it was the capital letter, the comma and the full stop – the full embodiment of her faith. And everywhere the churches rose, majestically punctuating the Old City.

Rabbi Genende (third from the right) with an interfaith group in Israel
Rabbi Genende (third from the right) with an interfaith group in Israel

For us Jews, it was the familiarity and "at homeness", the joy of being in that vibrant place of Jewish renewal. And it was a mind-shifting experience to see it in a new and unfamiliar way, through the eyes of the other.

For all of us, it was the sense of being in a place that engages not only our mind but also our heart and soul. It encouraged us to go deeper; like the multilayered levels of this ancient place, there was always another layer to dig into. So we dug into ourselves. We did not always appreciate what moved them so wondrously, bothered them so obviously, and irritated them so subtly.

As we walked together, shared meals and debriefed at the end of the day, we tried to understand what it was that separated us. Jerusalem is both a divided city and an indivisible place. The religions constantly bump up against one another, and not just figuratively.

That is why I am surprised that our eclectic group attracted so much attention. After all, Jerusalemites are participating in interfaith activities every day, and interfaith groups abound in Jerusalem as across the country. But perhaps there is just so much else happening here in this dangerous and difficult part of the world that they do not have the luxury of contemplation and reflection. Perhaps in some small way, we were helping them look at themselves and dream of the possibility of things being different and better.

But then there were the fractious and difficult moments. At a Christian Palestinian centre, they angrily compared Israel to apartheid South Africa. There were two of us from South Africa – a Muslim and a Jew – and we engaged in a heated exchange about the veracity of this comparison. Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, I found it odious; the aforementioned Muslim participant accused me of seeing things from the luxury of a white perspective. I was in despair at our competing realities and narratives. Yes, Israel mistreats some, if not many, in the West Bank. Some of the laws and limitations imposed on West Bank Arab settlements and cities are comparable to the separation imposed by apartheid South Africa. Yet we were in Jerusalem, where Muslims and Jews live alongside one another, where they can eat in the same restaurants, stay in the same hotels and shop in the same places – not quite apartheid Johannesburg. Politics and fear, competing narratives and notions of victimhood, they all seemed to break the fragile bonds we had so carefully been nurturing. Black-and-white thinking asserts there is no space for other or for the colour grey.

Perhaps the most critical challenge took place at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. One of the Muslim women accompanying us had lived through the Lebanese Civil War, and as she entered the museum, she was retraumatised by the images of suffering and war and needed to exit hastily. She was furious and deeply upset. She accused Israel of exploiting the Shoah to gain sympathy. She was angry that high school children were attending the memorial; she claimed we were brainwashing them and causing more hatred. The Muslims joined her in angry solidarity. The Christians were confused. The Jews were deeply wounded by what we perceived to be an unjustified attack and a demeaning diminution of our collective trauma. We spent hours attempting to talk through what happened, but the chasm remained. Yet, despite the disjunction, there were moments when we came together in harmony; when we revelled in our differences and celebrated our commonalities.

Rabbi Genende on an interfaith trip in Israel
Rabbi Genende on an interfaith trip in Israel

The Shabbat brought us together in a Jewish Jerusalem hotel unaccustomed to having Jews, Christians and Muslims alongside each other. We attracted the attention of other guests, including religious Jews from Israel and from across the world. No doubt they were surprised by the sight of this motley yet harmonious group from the Antipodes. They wanted to know what we were doing there, how we managed to travel together especially in this edgy city. They wanted to emulate us and do the same trip from their hometowns. We felt, for a brief period, that we had touched on something deep and essential, that we had recognised our differences, and we could let go of hate and victimhood, supremacy and supersession. That we could learn to re-read our ancient stories of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael (which divide Jews and Muslims) and reinterpret the hostility between Esau and Jacob (which separates Jewish and Christian readings and understandings of the Scriptures).

Later, we would discover that this is precisely what Rabbi Sacks writes about in his monumental study of the sibling rivalry between the monotheistic faiths, Not in God’s Name. Through a close reading of key biblical texts at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, Rabbi Sacks suggests that these texts need not divide and cause violence but instead become part of the solution.

In the Muslim quarter of the Old City, we met an extraordinary Sufi imam who still believed that love and respect would prevail and unite all the divided selves and peoples of Jerusalem. It will come, he assured us; it is an unstoppable fountain of love that will burst from the bedrock under the layers of distrust, hostility and enmity. His bold, large and humble heart opened our hearts, and the tears flowed.

Jerusalem is a place where so much has been lost, and yet so much has been found. On this trip, I discovered and uncovered more than I anticipated. But I also lost some of my idealism, the belief that with enough love and goodwill we could overcome the hostility and distrust of generations. So I despair, I dream, I doubt, and I hope for the future of our dialogue. I hope, because I have witnessed that many Jews and Christians can share a common language. And I hope, because without hope, there is only more violence and hatred and centuries of bitterness to come.

I like to think that our small group of Jews, Christians and Muslims found more than we lost. We represent the possibility that the solution – or at least part of it – will be found not in politics but in religion, in the genuine seekers of faith in each of our magnificent monotheistic movements.

This article is an extract from Living in an Upside Down World: Finding Meaning in Complex Times by Ralph Genende.

Photo: An interfaith group at the entrance to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

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