Palestinians, Israelis and people from other nationalities have shared bread in a 'peace meal' to commemorate the 9/11 terror attacks, and to seek an end to war and violence in their own homeland and across the world.
Judith Sudilovsky writes for ENI: Indicating a loaf of sweet braided bread on the table, the Muslim man, asked a group of Jews sharing the meal with him: "Why do you eat only this type of bread at the Sabbath meal?" Haysam Pakir, a 30-year-old Muslim from Nablus, a Palestinian city in the northern part of the West Bank, was speaking at a dinner held to commemorate the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Along with some 120 other Israelis, Palestinians and people of other nationalities, Pakir attended the meeting at the Beit Jalla Talitha Kumi Lutheran School near Bethlehem to mark 9/11 and commit to a better future in the troubled region of the Middle East.
"During the time of the Temple," a Jewish woman sitting at another table explained about an earlier epoch, "the high priests were commanded to bake 12 loaves of bread for the Sabbath. After the destruction of the temple Jews bless two loaves on the Sabbath eve meal in commemoration."
The exchange took place when followers of Islam break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan, called Iftar, and the weekly Shabbat meal that Jews have on their rest day.
"I have heard something about Shabbat but there were things I didn’t know," said Pakir, using the Hebrew word for Sabbath. Like most of the people at the dinner, Pakir is a member of the on-line MEPEACE or Middle East Peace (www.mepeace.org), an international network which sponsored the dinner.
The site has been dubbed the "Facebook of Peace" by some of Israel's media. Thousands of "peacemakers" from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and around the world communicate through the social networking site, which features personal profiles, photos, videos, events and discussion forums.
Despite meeting in a place fraught with tension over land which is claimed jealously by Israelis and Palestinians, there was no dispute about whether in biblical times the Jewish Temple stood on the site where today the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque is located. No argument ensued about whether the site is a Jewish or a Muslim holy place or whether it should be under sovereign Israeli or Palestinian control.
Instead, everyone in the room introduced themselves by saying their first names and indicating in what month they were born.
Some of those present noted that it is rare for Palestinians and Israelis to be able to meet in such a location because of Israeli political restrictions. Israelis are not permitted to enter Palestinian areas while Palestinians must have permits to enter Israeli territory.
Straddling Israeli and Palestinian border, the Tatlitha Kumi Lutheran School is in a place where both Israelis and Palestinians are permitted to come together and where they say they feel safe meeting.
Following the construction of Israel's separation barrier, the school has become almost the only venue where Israeli and Palestinian dialogue and interfaith groups can legally meet, noted school principal, Georg Durr.
Durr said that during the recent summer, some 25 interfaith and dialogue groups met on the grounds of the school.
"We are well known for this. At the moment I have five more requests in my computer from groups to meet at the school," Durr noted. "We are very happy we can facilitate such meetings, where people can meet each other to undermine … prejudice. There are great people on both sides."
Durr said the school had been assured by the Israelis that after the completion of the separation wall, which will cut off Beit Jalla from Jerusalem, a special tunnel road will be opened allowing Palestinians coming from Jerusalem to enter Beit Jalla via the neighbouring village of El-Khader, so that about 100 Jerusalem Palestinian students at the school will be able to continue attending lessons.
Yet while the wall may solve the problem for some Palestinian students, Durr fears that its completion will in future prevent Israeli-Palestinian groups from meeting at the school. This is because El-Khader is in the West Bank and Israelis are not permitted to enter it.
Although Durr was assured that a gate in the barrier would be opened for such groups, he believes this is not an acceptable solution since Israelis would need to gather there and give their identity information to soldiers. This may put off many Israelis.
Work on the wall in the area that is hated by Palestinians has been halted for the past 18 months, Durr said, but he was expecting it to begin at any time [under] the new Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Iftar/Shabbat dinner was the only event where Palestinians and Israelis marked 9/11 together, noted Eyal Raviv, founder of MEPEACE.
"Especially on a day like this, we must show them that there is another way; that Israelis and Palestinians do want to meet. The evening is all about faith, family and food," said Raviv.
MEPEACE's bimonthly peace café also meets at the Talitha Kumi Lutheran School, Raviv noted. "The school enables people to come together. They really symbolise the interfaith work to which we are committed," he said.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]