"Do you see that building over there with the golden dome," said David Hur, our guide to Old Jerusalem.
We nodded. "That's the Dome of the Rock. The rock upon which it is built is the third most holy site in the world for Muslims, the place where they believe the prophet Mohammed rose to heaven. The Jewish tradition believes it is the place where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son to God. That building represents the true opportunity for achieving peace in the Middle East. If in the first half of the day it could be used by the Jews for prayer, and in the second half used by the Muslims, and the next day given to the Muslims in the morning and the Jews for the afternoon, then there would be peace. That is all that it would take."
We looked down on the walled Old City of Jerusalem from our vantage point on the Mount of Olives. Below us lay a small grove of 2 to 3,000 year-old olive trees where Jesus prayed through the night and wrestled with his fears as his trusted disciples failed to stay awake and keep watch. Flowing up and around the grove were row up upon row of thousands of graves looking like an army of tombs, one side Muslim graves the other graves of Jews, each hoping to be amongst the first to witness Judgment Day.
The Dome of the Rock
"So David," I said. "Do you think in exchange for the Muslims making the Dome of the Rock available on such a basis the Jews would also be willing to make the Western Wall available to the Muslims on an equal basis, those times when the Jews have access to the Dome of the Rock they would give the Muslims access to the Western Wall?"
David looked at me darkly. The Western (Wailing) Wall, a section of the surrounding retaining wall of the Temple Mount upon which the Dome of the Rock rests, is the most important Jewish shrine in the world. While a secular person might contemplate asking one faith to exchange 50 percent of their access to their most holy site in exchange for access to site they deem equally holy held by another, the reality is that the ardent followers of either faith would not be willing to give up anything, certainly if the past is anything to go by.
"Let us go down and you pray against the Western Wall, and then let us follow the path of Jesus through the Stations of the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the hill where he was crucified and the tomb in which he was buried," said David.
I am in Israel a week before Easter to join professor Philip Speiser in teaching a course that uses the arts in conflict resolution, to give keynote address at a conference on Arts and Social Change, and to help plan a future conference on arts in health with which will be held at Lesley University's extension campus in Netanya, a small city located on the shores of the Mediterranean about 30 kilometers north of Tel-Aviv.
Our class is being attended by students ranging in age from a grandmother to one in her early twenties, many of whom are teachers, people who work with at risk youth, with prisoners and prison guards, people who themselves have been abused and one, an Arab whose family lives in Israeli city near Gaza that has been on the receiving end of many a rocket attack and, before the wall went up, the deadly effects of numerous suicide bombers.
One of the things that struck me about Israel is how intimate everything is. Israel is a tiny country about the size of the state of Massachusetts. In places it is only 9 to 30 miles wide. Another are the changes wrought by the Israelis over the past 60 years. Granted it is spring while I am here, but the western side is lush, flowers are blooming everywhere, hillsides are covered with olives, carrots, grapevines, wheat and many other foodstuffs, construction cranes dot the landscape as hotels, housing units and office buildings are being erected. The vitality of the land is evident as is the amount of work that has gone into it yet up in Jerusalem, about 2,500 feet above sea level one need look just over the top of a hill to see a rugged empty desert unfolding towards the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.
"I would like to know what you would like to receive from this class," said Philip to those sitting with us in a large circle. "I would like to know what conflicts are uppermost in your minds and hearts and your ideas for addressing them, and on the other side, to paraphrase what the late President John Kennedy said, what you are willing to give to this class. This class is built on 4 principles the first being dignity and creativity, that each person is to be valued as a person and as a person of creativity. Together they equal our common humanity, which is the bond that units all of us that creates our sense of oneness. For co-existence we need to understand that our sense of oneness is expressed in many different cultural ways. We need to allow for that expression. Accepting and respecting our diversity is our strength of humanity. If we try to stop diversity it leads to repression and conflict. The value of the arts is that they bring forward the power of dignity and the creative spirit, they can provide a safe place for the expression of our diversity and the strength of the human spirit."
His words brought me back to the Western Wall where the previous day I had leaned my forehead against it, my arms outstretched and palms against the warm rock. All about me men wearing their shawls and hats swayed and prayed. Later I stood on the ground upon which Jesus nailed to his cross had been erected. Around me differing Christian sects pressed against us their candles held high chanting the Lord's Prayer while overhead I could hear the broadcast voice of the imam calling Muslins to prayer.