Participants join together at the 3rd annual Sulha Gathering of Peace and Reconciliation, held in a Galilee olive grove. (Photo: Rudi Halbright)Israel’s five million Jews and almost one million Arabs may live side-by-side in relative tranquility, but they do not mix socially or culturally enough to really know one another.
The 3rd annual Sulha Gathering of Peace and Reconciliation, held in a Galilee olive grove at the beginning of the month, presented a unique opportunity for positive and fruitful communication between neighbors.
While their children played together, over one thousand Jews, Arabs and foreign peace activists – including two from Jordan – camped together, held intimate discussions and presented their cultures through culinary, traditional medicine, mysticism and folk dancing workshops. In the evenings, they sat around campfires and made music together.
Sheikhs, rabbis and other religious leaders participated in the free gathering, supported entirely by donations. There were no politicians – nor, indeed, politics.
The Sulha’s Jewish co-organizer, Gabriel Meyer, 37, was born in Argentina and is the son of the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer who founded the New York-based Bnei Yeshurun community. He learned of the sulha tradition from co-organizer Christian Arab Elias Jabbour, 68, Director of the House Of Hope international peace center in Shfar’am, whose father officiated over the dispute resolution sessions during Ottoman times.
“The sulha is held mid-week so as not to insult any religion. We hope to bring the planet’s greatest healers such as the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela for a sulha in Jerusalem in 2005,” Meyer told ISRAEL21c.
Mahdy Sarhan, 31, from the nearby Druze-Moslem-Christian village M’ghrar, donated the site in the north of Israel.
“When I inherited this land from my grandfather, I had a vision to bring lovers of peace to this place,” he said. Sarhan broke tradition by living for in Jewish cities for a decade. “I was born to a Druze family, but my heart turns toward humanity. Everyone in the village thinks I’m crazy – but I forgive them.”
The scenes at the Sulha would have caused cynical veterans of Middle East violence to rub their eyes and look again. Bending over a hand-operated loom, teenager Orna Mor from Rosh Pina helped two traditionally-clad Moslem girls from a local village weave another row on a decorative carpet dedicated to peace.
“This is our way – doing together, not killing each other. Doing is even more important than talking,” she said.
Ibrahim Abu-Hana, 61, from East Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, smiled as a group of Jewish and Arab children ran past with a ball.
“To change things, you first need to honor each other. The more we hold discussions and mutual visits, the more people will learn about them and join in. There are many types of Arabs here: Moslems of various strains, Christians, Druze, and Bedouins from the Negev and Galilee,” he says. “This is the best way to learn about each other. I’m happy to see so many children playing together – that’s the foundation of everything.”
After a communal lunch, the participants divided into 18 talking circles under the shade of the surrounding olive trees and tarpaulins.
Farah Gaye, a visiting Sufi Sheikh from Senegal, has attended many cross-cultural gatherings around the world, and he told his talking circle that this is just the beginning of the new cycle.
“When you throw a pebble in water, you don’t know how far the ripples will reach,” he said.
Haifa University sociology student Dalit Simchai rarely has the opportunity to meet and socialize with Arabs, and left the event surprised and elated.
“The Sulha is about people getting to know each other better. We spoke about honesty and the events of the past two years. Everyone emphasized their desire to respect each other. It was an amazing conversation.”
Simchai says she will tell her friends about the gathering. “Peacemaking is going on while most of us see what the politicians want us to see. The people here believe in the way of good – these circles are increasing and expanding.”
Among the speakers at the Sulha were representatives of the Tibetan government in exile and of South African leader Nelson Mandela. They presented a long-term perspective for the participants of how a peace process evolves over time.
“Nobody can change the world instantly,” Lama Geshe Thubten Phelgye, a representative of the Tibetan government in exile, told the gathering’s plenary session. The best weapon to fight conflict is compassion – the ability to forgive. We don’t believe in guns. Religious heads have a big role to play: to open the eyes of common people and emphasize common human values, rather than the differences.”
Zulu activist-artist John Qhuzulini Sithole, representing Nelson Mandela, was forthright: “The workshops and talking groups must continue. We are messengers. Don’t sit on the experience. Be a part of the solution. Show them the way of love. Exercise tolerance and humanity, and push aside anger. This is what we did in our country. The message will eventually reach the bombers.”