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CHRISTMAS IN THE HOLY LAND

December 14, 2015

As a child I was both proud and uneasy when my mother would come to school, in our mostly-Christian New Jersey suburb each December, to make sure that Chanukah decorations went up on the walls among the wreaths and that “Rock of Ages” would be sung along with the Christmas carols. Last week, here in Jerusalem, the tables were turned. I cancelled a meeting in order to get to the Jerusalem YMCA to support the families coming to decorate the Christmas tree. This was necessary because of a facebook announcement from Lehava, the organization for “prevention of assimilation in the holy land,” in which they urged activists to come protest the travesty of a Christmas-tree decorating party at the Y. Sometimes the Lehava folks get violent. Now, as part of the Jewish majority in Israel, I needed to do my mother’s job in reverse.

The police had been warned, the event was secured. Outside the Y, a band of Lehava activists screamed through a bullhorn and waved signs that read, “Get out, idiots,” and “No missions in Jerusalem.” Inside, a standing-room-only crowd of Christian, Jewish and Moslem parents and toddlers gathered around the tree and sang “Joy to the World.” Dangerous missionaries! Since 1981, the YMCA has run a bi-lingual pre-school for Jewish and Arab children, many of whom go on to the Max Rayne Bi-lingual school where my daughter studied for five years. Lehava activists torched the school last year and regularly graffiti hateful messages on the school’s walls, under cover of night.

At Zion Square, a committed band of “Talking in the Square” activists take on the Lehava crazies each week since the 2014 Gaza war, meeting the public to advance tolerance in the streets of Jerusalem. I often join them, relishing the chance to engage with the public about our present dilemma and our common future. While the Lehava guys screech at us, we maintain our cool, knowing that while there is little hope of really talking with them, their shrieks are the draw that brings curious observers to the confrontations’ perimeter. We then target the observers, pulling them off for one-on-one contact, and often there are wonderful breakthroughs. No one falls to his knees, tears in his eyes, saying, “How could I not see that I must become a peace activist…” This is not how people change. But cracks open in folks’ armor, questions are asked, and at the very least people go away having experienced authentic human engagement with us, appreciating that, divided as we may be, we tolerance people are approachable, and that dialogue warms us all. Some of them return the following week, to continue the discussion, others go home to their families and tell of the good conversation they have had with “the peaceniks.” One step at a time.

Last week, the “Talking in the Square” team was joined by other movements, for a Chanukah event, including “Chavruta,” a group of gay religious men who liked the idea of engaging with the public. These guys are spurned by their own communities and often by their families, but they support each other and forge on through the homophobic milieu in Jerusalem. As we sang Chanukah songs and distributed jelly doughnuts to the curious passersby, I approached a group of 15-year old religious guys who looked curious. I explained who we are and what we are doing, and at mention of the religious gays they freaked out. “Animals! How can they be that way, when God forbids it?” I asked whether they really thought that there is only one way to be Jewish, and the discussion rambled on, them laughing nervously with each other while their leader, Rami, checked whether I too “am a homo.”

At one point, I asked Rami if he was a brave guy. “Of course I am, I’m going to the army in three years to show the Arabs what’s what!” “Well if you are brave,” I said, “perhaps you’ll let me invite one of the religious gays to come over and talk with you.” “But he’ll be hot for me, he’ll try to touch me!” he shouted, to the nervous giggles of his friends. After I promised that no one would molest him, he acceded to my request. I brought over one of the gay activists, a quiet and serious young man, and introduced them, then giving them space for their conversation. They dove into a lively and thoughtful interchange. After a few minutes, an older religious guy who is apparently the youths’ counsellor, came to extract his followers from the clutches these “poisonous people.” Obediently, the youths began to leave with him, but not without Rami reaching out to shake hands with the gay activist. I came over to say goodbye, asking him, “So who touched whom, in the end?” We laughed together, off he went, and clearly something had shifted for him.

When I run in Jerusalem forest, sometimes I seek paths that are off my regular route, for the fun of discovering new parts of the forest. The morning after my encounter in the Square, as I savored the evening’s little opening with the youths, an unfamiliar path led me to a rare clump of narcissus flowers in bloom, the long stalks gracefully bent, the blooms touching. The wild winter narcissus only blooms where conditions are just right. I knelt to breathe in their marvelous musky fragrance.

As I continued on my way, I wondered about the undiscovered paths that lead to people’s hearts. Will we be able to create conditions where people will bloom? Will we have the stamina to delicately make our way into the hearts of folks who, in their depths, when at their best, do not want to fear and hate? Will we be calm and devoted and persistent enough to enable openings that could lead to a shift in consciousness? Will we Israelis allow this year’s rains to soften our crusty topsoil and enable the narcissus to burst forth? Can we begin to find the ways to touch each other? If we do, perhaps we’ll be ready when springtime finally comes to this troubled land.

Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is one of the founders of “Beyond Persuasion,” a group committed to learning and training activists in the art of reaching out effectively to the public

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2 Comments
  1. Thanks Yoav for all that you do! I know you well from being with you at many of our peace gatherings, you truly are an example of someone who cares enough to help others care, and you have the tools for this adventure, or should I say challenge. The situation on the ground will not change unless individuals do something – so keep being the example and making easily readable footprints for many to follow you……..and me and other peace people!

  2. Michal Schonbrun permalink

    Thanks for sending your posts and demonstrating your “אכפתיות”

    Also, let me know what you and Frumit want to bring for Shabbat lunch. Leora is bringing dessert and wine. Are there any foods that you/both of you don’t eat??

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