My second meeting yesterday was with Eliyahu McLean, the co-founder of Jerusalem Peacemakers along with Sufi Muslim Sheikhs Abdul Aziz Bukhari and Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa. The organization is a network of religious leaders and community activists, primarily from Israel and the territories, who seek to bring people from across the political spectrum together over “shared concerns for justice and peace.”
Inspired by the teachings of controversial Tekoa rabbi, Rav Menachem Froman, the organization seeks to use religion as a tool and source for recognizing the shared humanity and dignity of Israelis and Palestinians. R’ Froman made waves first as a founder of Gush Emunim, the religious settlers’ movement, and then as an informal peacemaker and negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians. He regularly met with Yasser Arafat and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and now engages in dialogue with both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It is his belief that at the root of the continued conflict is the failure of leaders on both sides to include religion and religious leaders in the peace process.
His teachings have also inspired another recently formed group, Eretz Shalom. This organization was started by Jewish settlers who are committed to the notion of Eretz Yisrael as the Jewish homeland and believe it is more important to live on the land than in the Israeli state. As such, they have begun dialogue with Palestinians on coexistence between Jews and Arabs in any future Palestinian state with the intent of remaining in their homes should Israel withdraw from the West Bank. One recent article about them you can read here in Hebrew.
The Jerusalem Peacemakers engage in a variety of activities bringing together people of all faiths for the advancement of peace. They have participated in a number of Israeli and International conferences of Rabbis and Imams, which Eliyahu believes are important for the religious leaderships of both Israelis and Palestinians to experience their common humanity. One such regular event they have held is the “Abrahamic Reunion,” where religious leaders have come together to celebrate holidays and engage in dialogue. Another of their more high profile events is the “Jerusalem Hug,” held once a summer attended by people of all religions and political backgrounds. In the hug, participants hold hands around the Old City of Jerusalem and pray together for “the peace of Jerusalem.”
The objective of their organization is to create a “different space” in which people of different religions can meet with a shared commitment and vision of peace for living together in the land of Israel/Palestine, which they inclusively call “The Land of Peace.” While the work of the Jerusalem Peacemakers sounds inspiring, it can be a bit difficult to pin them down in terms of actual positions or political orientations. Eliyahu notes that they have gotten a lot of flack from human rights groups on the left for not “protesting the occupation,” but he believes this is not the purpose of their group. Rather, they wish to work toward something instead of against it. From the right, they are at times accused of being traitors for meeting with Palestinians. When asked whether he is left wing or right wing, his response is this: “It takes two wings to fly.”
One gets closest to understanding their political orientation when examining the group’s philosophical roots. These, believes Eliyahu, stem largely from R’ Froman’s interpretations of R’ Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi Rabbi under the British Mandate and the founder of the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. His teachings have been the inspiration and source of much of religious Zionism and it was his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, who was considered the spiritual guide and teacher of the Gush Emunim settlement movement. Both ravs’ teachings heavily emphasized the centrality of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people and that the State of Israel was a sign of and vehicle for the coming of the moshiach (messiah). Focal to this ideology is both Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel and Jewish sovereignty over the land.
Rav Froman’s approach similarly emphasizes settlement and living in the land, but takes a creative view of Jewish sovereignty. Rather than seeing the State of Israel as the final fulfillment of prophesy, it is a stepping stone to a more “universal Israel” which will be less focused on controlling the land and more on ensuring that its neighbors can dwell securely in it. This contrasts to more mainstream interpretations which either take the state as either a final expression of Jewish sovereignty, or a stepping stone to a biblical style monarchy or rabbinical theocracy.
While Froman’s approach accepts that there can be a Palestinian state in the Land of Israel, it does so with the caveat that just as Arabs will continue to live as citizens in the Israeli state, so much Jews be allowed to continue to live as citizens of a Palestinian one. This position, Eliyahu insists, is very different than the Shalom Achshav approach which demands that all Jews leave the territories altogether. He believes that the average Palestinian does not insist on this, but rather wishes to be treated with justice, dignity, and equality whether under an Israeli or Palestinian state. An approach to peace does not have to be “either Meretz or Ichud Leumi,” rather than must be a way to take the best of both.
Jerusalem Peacemakers does not have an explicit political agenda, but rather believes Eliyahu, it is planting seeds for the future in which Israelis and Palestinians will live together in their shared land. To international campaigns to divest from Israel and boycott its institutions, he is firmly opposed to them. Why divest when you can invest in the 100s of groups that are reaching out across the divide within Israel to the Palestinians in search of peace.
This is a land, he believes, which has two indigenous peoples. While both are unlikely to give up on their respective nationalisms, some promise is to be found in emphasizing their common cultural roots and perhaps shared historical origins. Instead of relying on exclusivist narratives, participants in Jerusalem peacemakers insist that it is “Allah’s will that Jews be here and it is Hashem’s will that Palestinians be here.” It is critical, they believe, to acknowledge realities of what is on the ground. While there is room for improvement in relations, the consistent reality is one of two peoples living here together. Jerusalem Peacemaker’s mission is to make such coexistence a welcome reality on both sides.