The most powerful movement for reconciliation comes from within and is motivated by love. The Israeli organization Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) shows that it is possible to work for reconciliation from within, without rejecting the body that needs reconciling. RHR was established to fight for human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and is motivated by its love of Israel. In its fight for human rights, RHR is working for reconciliation. Religion is viewed as a bridge rather than a wall in this quest. RHR has a well developed network to help in its objectives such as educational programmes, a well-established legal department and a ‘sisters for peace’ programme to empower women. A number of its members have received international peace prizes for their work. One participant of an educational programme commented that her Jewish identity was influenced in a way that allowed her to know that there are different ways of defining Jewishness and Judaism beside the way pursued by the state of Israel.
RHR’s executive director, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, has frequently found himself in court because he has stood up for one group or another who have been treated unfairly by the state. For example, he and his fellow rabbis have often fought for the rights of badly treated Israelis and stood in front of bull-dozers about to destroy Palestinian homes. In March 2005 Rabbi Ascherman was convicted of blocking bulldozers with his body. In a surprise twist, the prosecution recommended that the conviction be expunged in return for community service on the grounds that it deemed the defendant was an upstanding citizen. This is an indication that the Rabbi’s deep dedication to Israel was recognized. Immediately after leaving the courtroom, the Rabbi laid the cornerstone of a Palestinian home that had been demolished. In its fight for social and economic justice for Israelis, RHR supported Israelis adversely affected by what it describes as ‘mean-spirited’ attempts by the government and private sector to reintegrate unemployed people into the work-force. RHR provides legal assistance so that those intimidated by the legal system can appeal against cuts to their welfare benefits. Members of RHR are Israelis who are motivated by love of their country.
The Importance of the Desert
Those seeking reconciliation need to experience the desert, as the experience of Musalaha illustrates. Musalaha (Arabic for reconciliation) is an organization whose aim is to reconcile Israeli and Palestinian Christians. Its founder and director, Salim Munayer, is a Palestinian Christian who holds Israeli citizenship. Salim’s grandfather had lived in Lydda (Lod) until the 1948 war when the Israelis took over the village. The Palestinians were ordered out of the village, but Salim’s grandfather and family, who were Christians, took refuge in the Church. They remained in the village and were given Israeli-Palestinian nationality. Salim was then brought up in a Jewish school and learnt to speak Hebrew and understand Jewish ways. At school, Salim was able to argue strongly for the rights of Palestinians. This was an ideal background from which a commitment to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation could grow. When starting on the road to reconciliation, Salim tried, unsuccessfully, to draw together Israeli and Palestinian Christians to dialogue with each other. He came to realize that the imbalance of power between Palestinian and Israeli, which was a political obstacle, was a major obstacle in dialogue and reconciliation.
In addition, at the age of five, both Palestinian and Israeli children have a clear view of who the enemy is and in the last fifteen years this view has moved to a demonisation of the enemy. The situation has been exacerbated by religion which has been used to support ethnic division. Salim then decided to use the desert as a tool for reconciliation.
The desert encounter has become an important part of Musalaha’s philosophy. Groups of young Palestinians and Israelis go out into the desert together where they need to support and look out for each other in order to survive. In this hostile environment, the young people are forced to look at each other as fellow human-beings – dehumanizing labels such as potential terrorists and overbearing intruders wilt in the rigours of the wilderness and a transformation of understandings takes place. Church may be a place where reconciliation is discussed, but the desert is a place where reconciliation is experienced. In using the desert, Musalaha is creatively using a resource which, for the people of God, has always been a place of stripping, encounter with God, renewal and suprise.
In the desert, the people of Israel are fed, not by their own ability, but by God’s grace. They find the desert to be a place of unexpected resources when they are fed by manna from heaven or water from the rock; but when they decide to collect the resources and hoard it, then everything goes stale for them(Exodus 16-17.7). It is in the desert that renewal takes place when a new identity is gradually forged and the people of Israel are given the choice of life and prosperity or death and disaster(Deuteronomy 30.15). Even today, Jews look back to the desert as a formative time when, at the Feast of Tabernacles, they build tents as a commemoration of their time in the wilderness and escape from slavery.
For Christians, too, the desert, a place of stripping, humility, uncertainty and humiliation, is also a place of focus, wonder and unexpected resources. John the Baptist, with his prophetic clarity and sharpness, was shaped by his desert experience (Mark 1.1-8). Jesus emerged from his time in the desert with a clear sense of the direction in which God was calling him(Mark 1.12-13). Today, Christians are called to stand alongside Jesus and experience the desert during the season of Lent in order to be prepared for the stripping and surprises which God brings during Holy Week and Easter. Every time a Christian goes on retreat, there is the opportunity to be open to the experience of the desert and to be renewed to view life from a different perspective. For all these reasons, the desert experience has to be part of the journey of reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot take place unless those involved are willing to lose everything that has kept them apart such as hatred, prejudices and ill-formed ideas; it demands an openness to renewal and a willingness to put their trust and faith in something beyond themselves, which, for Christians, is the grace of God.