I did not realize how fast my trip to Israel would be over as I was boarding the plane at Ben Gurion Airport to return to JFK. The one-month program, "Coexistence in the Middle East," seemed like a significant amount of time, or so I thought. The purpose of the trip was to study the relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. At the time, I did not believe that I would have a transformative, even mystical, experience. I thought I was entering a land that I knew very well from the media.
I was drastically mistaken.
My travels throughout Israel have taught me that the center of the three monotheistic religions is not in Jerusalem. The center cannot be a place controlled by any one religious group. Instead, I found it to be a place deep inside oneself that is awakened through inclusive cooperation of the religious and non-religious alike.
One such awakening occurred quite early in my trip. I was visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As I was exiting the church, a man, betrayed by his body, whose expression was of sorrow and despair, confronted me. His eyes were somber and red. It was evident that tears had been streaming down his face. Age had gotten the better of him, as did his disability. His legs were shrunken, arms forced to his side, and hands clasped as if they were clutching on to life itself. His disability was not of the mind, but of the body: the most tragic of all betrayals.
At this moment, I felt struck down at the sight of not only this man, but by all the people that would walk blindly past him. There were multiple occasions that this man would gaze up into the eyes of the person next to him, only to be met with the flash of a camera attempting to capture the photograph of a nearby statue. Some tourists would go as far as to lean over this man in order to take a photograph.
As I remember this encounter, I had failed to realize at that moment how much it would captivate my thoughts. The people that would walk past this man had lost their sight. For me, the "attraction" (and I use this word with the implication "to be drawn to something," not for personal benefit but because of an emotive change in oneself) was not the physical structure of the church, but this man within the church. For me this man represented our ability to remain strangers even in a land that by its very "holy" existence begs for brotherhood.
Was it I who was a stranger in this land, or was it everyone? To this day I still do not know the answer. To this day I still do not know whether this encounter was with the holy or the temporal. I had many questions without answers. But the most satisfying answers came from the people and not the guidebooks.
I now can look back and recall a conversation that I had with a man selling fish in the Muslim Quarter. He said, "Israel: it is the holiest place in the world with the least holy of people." I do not believe that this statement was an insult to Israelis because he continued to say this land has become a tourist attraction and that the native has forgotten the holiness that fills this land.
I remembered his wisdom while I was standing between the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque: perhaps the reason is because people attempt to represent their religion or ethnicity, for example Muslim or Jew, Arab or Israeli, instead of re-presenting their religion or ethnicity. For inclusive cooperation between the religious and secular to prevail, we must focus on what unites us instead of divides us. We must place emphasis, as Martin Buber states, on the I-Thou relationship and not the I-It relationship.
One can say that the center of the three in Jerusalem is having that I-It relationship, while the center of the three in the self is having that I-Thou relationship. I once wrote a piece on how the Interfaith Youth Core's Leadership Institute promotes plurality in an increasingly secular world. In this piece I stated:
"Hindu mystics teach that we have the capacity of choice, in which we can view each person, regardless of religious or nonreligious background, as a living being of humanity. We all have unique oxygen. The question is whether we decide to breathe together or separately."
My hope is that Israel listens to this message. It seems that many times we get lost in the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab Springs conflict that is portrayed in the media and lose the dialogue from the people who are living in these areas. The personal relationships that I developed with Israelis and Arabs living amid the religious and political destruction and despair has left me longing to deliver the forgotten message that faith-line, as Eboo Patel puts it, is not the challenge of the 21st century but the solution!
Throughout my study in The Holy Land, I have come to the simple realization that "holiness" is everywhere; the question is whether one can approach eye level with their neighbors and finally see the truth that lies beneath the surface. If we can reach this reality we will realize that, regardless of our origin, we are from the same source, and at one point in our lives all of our paths will converge without hatred or ignorance. We are not strangers in a strange land, but brothers and sisters in a land where we are processing creation.