Sulha: Israeli Jews & Palestinians Pray & Celebrate Together

Sarah Bronson for Haaretz, 8/23/2004

`When an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim invite you to a peace festival, you don't say no'
By Sarah Bronson

Palestinians, religious and secular Jews, Israeli Arabs, and foreign guest were among the almost 2,000 people who filled Shuni Park near Binyamina on Tuesday for the fourth annual "Sulha Way" peace festival, which aims to "heal the children of Abraham."

The three-day grassroots festival - part group therapy, part county fair, and part Woodstock - included "listening circles," in which those from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian shared their stories; games and crafts, in which Jewish and Arab children played together; uplifting speeches by Sufi sheikhs and Orthodox rabbis and concerts by Arab and Jewish bands. The event is named after a traditional Arab ritual for reaching reconciliation between warring families.

Among the attendees were a Tibetan monk and several guests from South Africa, northern Ireland, and England who came to share their experiences in peacemaking. Sulha co-organizer Radash Eliyahu McLean, an American immigrant to Israel, called The Sulha Way festival "a meeting of the minds and heart between the Jews, Christians and Muslims who are destined to share this land whether we like it or not."

"I want this to be something beyond a regular left-wing event," McLean said, "something that comes from the spirit - to awaken in both peoples a healing of the deep wounds we've been inflicting on each other. And to connect both peoples through the underlying spiritual unity that connects us, not the political arguments that divide us."

`Two wings to fly'

McLean himself is a colorful figure. His title "Radash," a Hebrew acronym for "pursuer of peace," was bestowed upon him by Rabbi Zalman Schachter of Boulder, Colorado. McLean, 35, was born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, both `60s-era flower children who raised him in Hawaii under Sant Mat, a mystical branch of Sikhism.

At the age of 12, McLean became interested in Judaism, and over the next decade his journey took him through Young Judea, the Israel Action Committee at the University of California Berkeley, Isralight, Chabad, and Jewish Renewal. Seeking to understand the "spiritual background to Zionism," he attended a yeshiva, spent two months studying with a Sufi in Egypt, learned fluent Arabic and Hebrew, and worked both with Palestinian construction workers in Jerusalem and in the Galilee as a goatherd. He was inspired to enter peace work partly by the death of a Jewish friend in a suicide bombing; at the funeral, the friend's father said "Eliyahu, I'm counting on you to continue my son's work for peace."

Today, McLean travels Israel and the world promoting co-existence between Arabs and Jews, regularly using his American passport to enter Arab countries and Palestinian villages. He recently participated in an "interfaith peace journey" from Amman to Baghdad, where he addressed a crowd of Iraqis while wearing the skullcap, long sidelocks, and fringed garment common among religious Jews. His friends include both settlers and Sufi sheikhs on the West Bank.

"People ask me if I'm right-wing or left-wing," he said with a smile. "I say it takes two wings to fly."

`Like waves on the shore'

McLean's main responsibility for the Sulha was making arrangements for the event's many foreign guests, most of whom led workshops to exchange practical ideas for peacemaking. Among them was Maighread Kennedy of Belfast, since 1971 a member of Ireland's small grassroots Corrymeela Community, which promotes social interactions between young Catholics and Protestants.

"Going to Corrymeela gave me a chance to see that there were Protestant just as interested in peace as I am," she said, noting that she had never met a Protestant until she was 18. "I saw that there were Protestants who wanted to listen to me and hear my story. That gave me hope."

"It's like the Sulha," she said of Corrymeela. "A safe place for people to come and meet. When people meet, there are new possibilities. When you look people in the eye, you know them. You can't make assumptions about them. After joining Corrymeela, when I heard that Catholics were being killed, I knew that not all Protestants are murderers."

Sitting with Kennedy on the park lawn was Fatima Swartz, a long-time peace activist in Capetown and a member of the Coalition for Peace in Africa. As a volunteer came around with a tray of watermelon slices, Swartz told Anglo File that she came to spread the message that "peace is possible, but you cannot give up at the first obstacle. Sometimes you have to try many time before you get it right."

Speaking of ethnic conflicts worldwide, she said, "There often is not a lot of self-reflection on either side, just blaming others. People want a copyright on things - `only we want peace, only we feel the pain, no one else can understand.' But it's not so."

Kennedy added that the optimism displayed by peace activists would eventually prove itself. "Peacemaking is like the waves on the shore. They ebb and flow, but never ebb as far as they come in. Eventually they come up the beach. I want to tell people to keep your hope up, and be patient." After an outdoor lunch of thick bread, hummus, couscous, and salad, Anglo File spoke with Anglican priest John Sumner and his wife, Alice. The two founded the "Quest Community" at their historic Magdalene Chapel in Glastonbury, England. Each day their interdenominational Christian group meets for an intimate prayer vigil for world peace; the 20-member group often attracts tourists, including Israelis. McLean and a Muslim friend stopped in a few months ago and invited them to the Sulha.

"When an Orthodox Jew and Muslim invite you to a peace festival, you don't say no," Alice said with a laugh. The couple were not scheduled to speak formally at the event, but had come "to show international concern and love, to show the people here that they are not forgotten," Alice explained. "It means so much to people to know they are being prayed for."

By the end of the second day, the Sulha had attracted an estimated 4,000 participants from all over Israel, Jordan, the territories, and elsewhere, an organizer reported. "It's important just that the people are present," Kennedy said. "You don't need to do anything else. It's OK just to be here and meet people."