Sites of Encounter

For the Jewish and Arab children at Sataf, the joint experience was accidental. But I couldn’t help but wonder: what if this convergence of lives extended beyond the day’s hike down to the springs – what if they were given the opportunity to carry on through shared learning, through intentional encounters?

There is a beautiful hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a nature reserve that is well known and very popular among those who enjoy the outdoors. It is especially stunning in the springtime, when the almond trees, anemones, and cyclamen – which grow there in abundance – begin to bloom and blossom, dappling the landscape with a burst of bright colors, tantalizing the senses with scents of every kind. I’ve walked there often, and have, on many occasions, felt that here is a little piece of paradise – an oasis of beauty, peace, and tranquility in the midst of what can only be described as a chronically frenetic, tense, and potentially explosive city.

But Sataf is not as pristine as it might seem. Its history is as sad and tangled as any landscape in this country, with only the remnants of long-abandoned buildings left to tell stories from a long forgotten past. Scattered over the hill, mostly on the eastern and southern slopes, are the skeletal remains of what was once a thriving Arab village – agricultural in nature, as attested to by the many man-made terraces that scale the hillsides. Like so many, this village was abandoned in 1948, in the wake of the creation of the State of Israel. But the crumbling structures (built during the Ottoman era) are joined by a good number of more modern looking buildings – or shacks, rather – square, thin-walled, with asbestos cement ceilings (that have long-since caved in), broken down metal gates, crumbling asphalt roads – the remains of an old Israeli army base, also abandoned many years ago. These deserted spaces, now very much part of a much more natural and overgrown landscape, are silent reminders that even behind all the natural beauty there are hidden secrets, a jumble of histories, the unknown joys and sorrows of a multitude of people who, at some point or other, lived in this place and made it their own.

Spring seems to have burst on the scene here in Israel, making it impossible to stay indoors, especially on a warm and blissful day like the one we had yesterday. I couldn’t resist the temptation to drive out to Sataf for a quick morning walk to bask in the long-awaited and very welcome arrival of spring. But of course, as so often happens in this country, when I got there I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a perfect morning for such an outing. Dozens of buses lined the parking lot while hordes of Israeli school kids swarmed the hillside as they prepared to make their way down the eastern slope to Sataf’s famous springs. I immediately noticed that the crowd was made up of more than one school, as there were both secular and religious Israeli kids bustling about. But in the midst of all the chaos, I was surprised to hear some kids speaking Arabic, and looking up ahead I saw that there were two busloads of children from Arab schools that were also preparing to hike down to the springs. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought to myself, “Well, here is a moment of chaotic and very noisy coexistence.”

To see Arab school buses mixing with Israeli school buses gave me a sense of what is possible and how this mingling, however unplanned, can still make a difference. Though Sataf is highly charged in its history (what place here isn’t?), yesterday it became a place that momentarily suspended the past when it brought Jewish and Arab school kids together in a shared enjoyment of the present. In so doing, and without intending to, Sataf became a site of encounter. For weren’t we all there together to celebrate spring in all its glory? Encounters like this one are, I believe, absolutely essential for breaking down the walls of fear that separate the peoples of this land since they are not defined by the things that divide, but rather by a sense of togetherness – in this case, a shared enjoyment of nature’s abundance. Yesterday proved that even with all this land’s history, it is still possible for Jewish and Arab school kids to cross paths in the present and together enjoy the beauty of nature, side by side.

For the Arab and Jewish children at Sataf, the joint experience was accidental. But I couldn’t help but wonder: what if this convergence of lives extended beyond the day’s hike down to the springs – what if the students were given the opportunity to carry on through shared learning, through intentional encounters? As I was driving home, reflecting on this, I thought how this is exactly one of the things we are aiming to do with the Peace Heroes Curriculum. The Curriculum is meant to be a kind of oasis – a safe space for students from diverse contexts to brush shoulders as they learn about and are inspired by the same brave people, near and far. It is meant to be a disarming space that doesn’t obliterate history or identity, but finds ways to celebrate the beauty in life through the small (and big) victories of people who succeeded in making a change for good. This is why we are so keen to use the Curriculum to bring schools together: we want to offer students from the most diverse backgrounds the opportunity to study peace together – side by side.

As I was driving out of the crowded parking lot, another tour bus drove in with a big sign on the front that read: “Rabbi so-and-so and Reverend so-and-so’s joint interfaith journey to Israel.” And I thought, Yes! That’s exactly it. The road to peace must be a joint journey. It is an incomplete peace otherwise.

1 thought on “Sites of Encounter”

  1. Beautiful. A good reminder that the journey toward peace can only go forward when real-life encounters are made possible.

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