A Tale of Two Cities

We stood on a mountainous perch overlooking the city of Jerusalem. It was an awesome site. We marveled at the beauty of the sand colored brick duplexes stacked upon the hills. However, a closer, detailed look revealed a different picture. The city of Jerusalem is in fact divided into two sections: East and West Jerusalem. It is truly a tale of two cities; one of privilege and opportunity and one of poverty and exclusion. From the roof tops one can see stark evidence of a striking limitation of basic human needs; water rights for Palestinian families are sharply curtailed. The residents of East Jerusalem receive fresh water two to three times a month while their neighbors in West Jerusalem receive unlimited amounts of fresh water every day. The roof tops of East Jerusalem homes contain black water tanks that are filled during the limited periods when water is released to their neighborhoods. When the water supply is shut off, these residents must carefully regulate their water usage saved in the tanks until more water is available. East Jerusalem residents also utilize silver tanks that are used to collect rain water in an effort to collect as much fresh water as possible. All Palestinian neighborhoods throughout the holy land are subject to this peculiar water policy.

Additionally, one can see a winding thirty foot concrete wall that has been erected throughout many parts of the land primarily around and through Palestinian communities. Neighborhoods are divided, families and friends are separated but even worse, Palestinians and Jewish Israeli citizens live divided from each other. Many don’t have the opportunity to interact yet they live so closely together. Howard Thurman commented in his mystical work: Jesus and the Disinherited that hatred is engendered when there is limited knowledge or contact without fellowship between people. It is possible to know of someone without ever having a true exchange. Fellowship requires one to exchange with and touch their neighbor. My concern is that members of the two areas of Jerusalem are sharing virtually the same space but living with physical and social barriers that will prevent them from knowing each other as members of the same human family. It seems as if these close neighbors of East and West Jerusalem are both under siege. The systematic isolation harms both communities making true reconciliation more difficult as both populations cease making contact and genuine fellowship with each other. Ellen Blum Barish, one of my adopted Jewish congregants from Evanston, Illinois recently reflected upon an exchange that took place between our congregations during a joint biblical study group session. In her article entitled: “The Power of a Circle: Standing Hand-in Hand to Overcome Discrimination” she reflected upon our own personal interaction stating, “It isn’t too often that we find ourselves standing in a circle with other people. Especially one consisting of black and white, male and female, young and old, Jewish and Baptist. Aren’t we more inclined to just show up and stand, separate from one another, in the back to observe?”

It is precisely this inclination to separate that drives the concerns that I am attempting to convey in this blog. Why the disparity of water resources? Why are families in the same area being treated so differently? I am not naïve regarding the histories of each of the populations in East and West Jerusalem. I acknowledge there are security concerns and historical disputes that are beyond my capacity to interpret and fully understand. I understand that members of both communities have experienced tremendous pain, terror, death and destruction. However, at the present moment I am informed and educated enough to know that the present status quo in Jerusalem is unsustainable and harmful to all citizens involved. I also recognize that we all have a tendency to label and categorize some human beings as the “other”. This tendency if allowed to go unchecked, guides communities into a defensive posture further alienating and dividing them until they both regard each other as the “other”. Once we label another human being as the “other” we are able to declassify their humanity and treat them as less than the magnificent creation that God has created in God’s image. We forget and ignore the divine spark that God has delicately placed in every human being. I asked our Palestinian tour guide if there was ever a group demonstration in the Old City of Jerusalem where Christians, Jews and Muslims gather each day by the thousands. Would it be possible for us to designate a time and space in the center of Old Jerusalem where we could just assemble one time in a circle of unity? I asked him if this had ever been attempted and he looked at me pointedly and said, “Never.”

I was pleasantly surprsied that Ellen Blum Barish was so moved to write about the exchanges between our congregations. Honestly, I don’t recall the exact words of the address but Ellen quoted me saying these words: True connectivity needs touch. It’s not enough to just be in the room, just to show up. As I think about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ I am reminded that Jesus touched people often. The Christian disciples were directed to lay hands on those who were ill or in need of spiritual renewal. I am especially reminded of the story of a woman with a chronic issue of blood who trusted Jesus so much that she touched him and was healed despite the strict limitations of the culture. Touching is necessary for healing to take place. Christians, Jews and Muslims it is not enough to go to our holy places. It is not enough to study our holy texts. If we fail to touch each other we have failed to be the people that God has called us to be. God has designed us to interact and grow from each other. We live and worship in our own little Jerusalems, our separate cities. When are we going to join hands and form a new unified Jerusalem; one that transcends the land and embraces the touch of the spiritual realm?

We have hands but our hardened souls have turned them into fists. Bombs, walls and policies won’t heal but a touch will.

Brian Smith


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