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Bethlehem Catholics Host American Jews:
Promoting Intercultural Contact as a Foundation to Middle East Peace

by Judith Sudilovsky
Published on December 28, 2008 in Our Sunday Visitor

Leila Sansour looked with disbe­lief at the two American women sitting in her busy Bethlehem office. Had she heard them correctly? Were these two women she had just agreed to work with actu­ally Jewish Americans, and rabbinical students to boot?

As founder and exec­u­tive director of the Open Bethlehem Foundation, 42-year-old Sansour, a member of a promi­nent Catholic Bethlehem family, was accus­tomed to facil­i­tating group visits to Bethlehem. But these young, eager-faced women were proposing that she lead a group of North American rabbinical students through Bethlehem, pointing out local hot spots like demol­ished houses and the Israeli sepa­ra­tion wall.

It wasn’t some­thing I did before, and I couldn’t quite imagine how this would look like, but I was very happy to try,” Sansour told Our Sunday Visitor, of that meeting three years ago. “I must confess I wasn’t banking much on any great results.”

Founded by American rabbinical students Miriam Margles and Melissa Weintraub, Encounter’s goal is to expose future North American Jewish reli­gious leaders and educa­tors to the Palestinian perspec­tive. Expanding from its orig­inal once-a-semester trip to Bethlehem format, the program has grown by word of mouth to include monthly trips into Bethlehem, trips to Hebron and East Jerusalem twice a year, and trips into Bethlehem for visiting adult North American Jewish lead­er­ship delegations.

Group Listening’

Israelis are not permitted legally to enter into Palestinian terri­to­ries by the Israeli govern­ment, so the program is open only to foreign pass­port holders. Some 500 students from all streams of Judaism have partic­i­pated on the trips.

Ilana Sumka, co-director of Encounter, said that while other groups conduct polit­ical tours of the area, Encounter sees itself as a reli­gious educa­tional expe­ri­ence, incor­po­rating Torah, or the Jewish Bible, values into all compo­nents of the program.

We ask ourselves: How can we draw from Torah values to guide us in trans­forming this conflict,” said Sumka, who accom­pa­nies all the groups into the West Bank and helps coor­di­nate their visit through Palestinian colleagues at Palestinian nongovern­mental agen­cies Open Bethlehem and the Holy Land Trust.

The program does not pretend to present both sides equally nor is it meant to be an oppor­tu­nity for dialogue, said Sumka. Rather, assuming that the partic­i­pants will have ample time to inves­ti­gate Israeli society during their year of study, Encounter is intended as a chance to be exposed to the Palestinian narra­tive as a part of the complexity of life in Israel. Difficult as it may be at times, the students go in as a “group of listeners,” she said, open to hearing Palestinians without responding.

Many of the Jewish students under­take the two-day visit without the knowl­edge of, and some­times even despite prohi­bi­tions due to, secu­rity concerns of their educa­tional insti­tu­tion (sic) in Israel or their fami­lies back home.

The brief 15-minute bus ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem trans­plants the students not only phys­i­cally but also emotion­ally as they grapple with issues that until now they have only seen from an Israeli perspec­tive, such as the Israeli sepa­ra­tion wall which encir­cles Bethlehem, travel restric­tions and land confiscation.

Critics have accused Encounter of trying to erode Jewish-American support of Israel. But Sumka said Encounter repre­sents a shift taking place within the Jewish-American commu­nity of those “wishing to be engaged with the conflict with a fresh perspec­tive,” which can lead to a stronger rela­tion­ship with Israel.

After an intense day of presen­ta­tions, tours, and ice-breaking games with local Palestinians one recent November evening, the special events room of The Tent restau­rant in Beit Sahour erupted with rhythmic drum­ming and the trilling of tongues as Jews and Palestinians shared a meal and tradi­tional Palestinian dancing. For most of the partic­i­pants these fleeting moments are the most signif­i­cant as they meet local Palestinians and share personal conversations.

As her father, Adel, clapped his hands and looked on with a proud smile, 10-year-old Agnes Handal, a Catholic whose family was among those hosting some of the Jewish partic­i­pants in their home, giggled encour­ag­ingly as she tried to teach Marisa James, 32, who is studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem for the year, the intri­ca­cies of hip and hand move­ments in Middle Eastern dance.

On her third trip into Bethlehem with Encounter, James said dancing with Agnes is what gave her hope.

There are times … when everyone feels a little hope­less, that all the argu­ments are too deep to over­come,” said James. “But spending time with chil­dren reminds you that there is a next gener­a­tion. That even if with what­ever we are doing we don’t change the world, there are others who will continue our work.”

Not far from the dance floor, Hana Sleiby, 40, said she viewed the oppor­tu­nity to host Jewish students in her Catholic home for an overnight stay as a learning expe­ri­ence for herself and her three teenaged chil­dren, teaching them about the values of love and tolerance.

All human beings are alike,” she said. “It is good for the chil­dren to see this. It is my plea­sure to be able to host people in my home – American, Jews, whoever it is, it is not impor­tant to me. That is part of my Christian faith.”

It wasn’t so easy in the begin­ning, said Holy Land Trust travel coor­di­nator Elias Deis, 27. Some people expressed fear of how the neigh­bors would react to them hosting Jews in their homes.

Here the word ‘Jewish’ is connected to dying and violence,” he said, explaining his own early reser­va­tions about working with the group. “But when I met this group I learned a lot about Judaism and how they respect other people.”

The students do much to not be conspic­u­ously Jewish as they walk through the streets, and those who wear a yarmulke – the tradi­tional Jewish skullcap – cover it with a base­ball cap. Inside their meeting room at a local hotel, however, the rabbinical students take turns leading the three tradi­tional daily Jewish prayer services in keeping with their reli­gious commitment.

Breaking Stereotypes

While the founders of Encounter have their specific agenda, Sansour said, she, too, has a goal in mind as she leads the North American Jewish students through the town where she as raised under the shadows of Israeli occu­pa­tion. She knows she has very little time to get her point across, she said.

Most of our expe­ri­ences of the world seem to confirm the triumph of national inter­ests and narrow alle­giances so in that way it is very heart­warming that a good number of people are still moti­vated by values that tran­scend this narrow [frame­work],” said Sansour. “There is also this exhil­a­ra­tion that comes because, for a short time, the emotional wall that sepa­rates people is suspended. You can see that most people want it to vanish, and that is very heartwarming.”

While she may not succeed in getting partic­i­pants to see things her way, at least they are now able to look beyond the statis­tics reported on the news and see the people living here, Sansour said.

And the same is true with the Palestinians they come in contact with, she said.

We are used to thinking that the majority of Jewish people in the world do and will blindly support Israel. The fact that the groups that come are eager to learn teaches us to see things differ­ently,” she said.

Working with the group, she said, rein­forces her belief that people should not allow them­selves to be swal­lowed by the past. Instead they should keep their “eyes firmly focused on our ulti­mate dream” of building a fair and just peace in the region capable of giving “dignity and pros­perity” to all who live here.

In other words, she said, she comes away from her Encounter expe­ri­ence as a better Christian.

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem. 

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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