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Give Peace a Chance

Give Peace a Chance

The newly established Hibbitt/Rockwell Fund Travel Fellowship is an opportunity for faculty and student-facing staff to engage in a travel experience that will energize and enrich their professional lives. The intention of this program is to promote enthusiasm and creativity in their work with students. John Minahan, Upper School World Religions teacher recently went to Israel. Below is his story. 

Jerusalem’s Old City was just the beginning. Emerging from a maze of ancient narrow streets, I could see in a single glance the imposing face of the Wailing Wall, which Jews regard as the holiest place to pray, as well as the golden dome of the al Aqsa mosque, marking the location where Muslims believe Mohammed was taken up into Heaven, and also the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thought by Christians to be built on the site of Jesus’s burial. In my World Religions class, we talk a lot about the complex relationship of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. I’ve always wanted to see the places that have been so important for all these religions, both to deepen my own understanding and to discover new insights to share with my students. Thanks to a Hibbitt-Rockwell Travel Fellowship, I got all that and more.

After Jerusalem came a visit to Galilee in the north. Just some of the highlights: hiking down a slope littered with volcanic rock to a waterfall and a pool perpetually shaded by a rhododendron canopy; “lifting mine eyes unto the hills” to see Syria and Lebanon in the hazy distance; studying the excavated foundations of a first century synagogue in Magdala; walking along the reedy shores of the impossibly tranquil Sea of Galilee; stopping for lunch in a roadside cafe and being welcomed like a long lost relative.

Next came the West Bank. Just getting there was a challenge, since the laws about who can go where are remarkably complicated. Even the name invokes dissension: is it the West Bank? Palestine? The Occupied Territories? You need a guide. After much internet searching and asking around, I found a wonderfully experienced and personable guide named Mohammed. He seemed to know and be known by everyone–even the bored looking young men with machine guns who stood at the checkpoint as we drove into an Israeli settlement near Jerusalem. Mohammed pointed out the contrast between the settlement itself–sleek condos, shopping malls, winding streets lined with palm trees––and the Palestinian neighborhood outside the walls–faceless apartment buildings, unpaved roads, uncollected trash. We then followed a highway through barren hills where Bedouin families live in tin shacks, going down (and down and down) to the Jordan River, just a narrow silty stream here, and then on to the caves of Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, and finally into Jericho, often cited as the oldest city on earth. In the 110 degree heat, I climbed to the top of the archaeological dig and looked down into 10,000 years of layered history, then explored the ruins of an Arab palace whose every surface was covered with ornate mosaics. Jericho is also a modern city, with a vibrant farmer’s market and countless places to buy the most wonderful bread, fruit and coffee. Speaking of old meets new, an aerial tramway, of all things, can take you up to an ancient monastery perched on a mountainside. And there was this other reminder of modern times: a sign at the entrance to the city, written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, warning that Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter and risk death if they do so.

But here’s the moment I most want to remember. As we drove along a fast-running irrigation ditch in the hills above Jericho, Mohammed spotted two of his many acquaintances, a pair of goatherds who were resting their flock in the meager shade of one of the few trees. When we stopped, these young men invited us to sit with them on their worn blanket, and then immediately poured us each a tiny cup of hot sweet tea. Having seen so many walls, both figurative and literal, dividing this land, I was reminded now of a tradition that is central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike: sharing what you have, no matter how much or how little, with anyone who comes into your life. Yes, the relationship among these three faiths has been and remains troubled, as is Israel itself; in fact, while I was there, the army was launching incursions into a Palestinian refugee camp, and flag-wielding Israelis were staging massive protests against their ever more authoritarian government. But, as I discovered everywhere I went, this land is also filled with people for whom the act of welcoming the stranger is just what you do. As a teacher in a Friends school, I’m always looking for examples of what peace-making looks like. There on that rocky hillside above Jericho, I found one of the most powerful examples I’ve ever seen, which was all the more powerful for its radical simplicity (the tea, by the way, was delicious). I can’t wait to see what such experiences will make possible in my work with students this year, and I’m deeply grateful that the Hibbitt-Rockwell Travel Fellowship made this trip possible.