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Forum explores three faiths’ ties to Jerusalem
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Forum explores three faiths’ ties to Jerusalem

Levent Koc, Ariann Weitzman, center, and the Rev. Andrea Walker consider spirituality and violence in the Middle East. Photo by Robert Wiener
Levent Koc, Ariann Weitzman, center, and the Rev. Andrea Walker consider spirituality and violence in the Middle East. Photo by Robert Wiener

Speakers representing Judaism, Islam, and Christianity agreed that Israel — and Jerusalem in particular — holds special spiritual meanings for people of their faiths.

But as they gathered May 11 at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, they disagreed amicably over the degree to which religious belief influences political realities in a place where Palestinians and Israelis have been in conflict for centuries.

“The idea of the sacred has always had a violent and messy side to it,” said Ariann Weitzman, a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale in the Bronx and an intern at the Reconstructionist synagogue. “The holy is a little bit scary, even if it could lead us to peace.”

But, she added, “we have to acknowledge this dangerous element and funnel that dangerous energy into something productive. But it is only when we make these friendships that we realize how much our actions, how much our theologies, impact each other and how potentially dangerous our theologies are.

“There is nothing that will force us to deal with that difficulty unless we see it in the eyes of somebody else and hear it from somebody we care for,” she said.

The occasion was “What the Holy Land Means to Me,” a forum sponsored by the Newark-based Interfaith Dialog Center.

The Rev. Andrea Walker of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Summit said she returned recently from a Christian pilgrimage to Israel and the West Bank. She described it as “a place that is amazing to me, where over centuries, people built up these great monuments to their faiths.”

Walker addressed the causes of political conflict in the region.

“We are not perfect. We are not able to be pure,” she said. “We can’t help ourselves for having conflict and fighting one another and thinking that the way we think is the only way to think.”

As a Muslim, IDC chair Levent Koc said he considers Jerusalem the third-most sacred spot in his Islamic faith.

“Jerusalem is a blessed holy land,” he said. “For many years there is fighting there, but we are hopeful the members of these three religions will live in the Holy Land peacefully. It is land blessed by God.”

And yet, the Turkish-born Koc said, an end to hostilities would be difficult to achieve.

“Some of the parties do not want peace,” he said. “They fuel the problems. As Muslims, we have to be wise, we have to be careful. We have extremes. These extremes could be part of the religious, these extremes could be secular, these extremes could be statesmen. But they cannot be part of the solution.”

Koc suggested that unspecified nations — “other parties” — speak to the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“They should say, ‘Shut up. Listen.’ We should force the two sides to listen,” he said. “Persuasion is not enough.”

A Christian minister in the audience asked Weitzman whether she felt Christianity “sometimes appropriates the texts and the lands” from Judaism.

“I do feel uncomfortable that one of the major economic supports for Israel is Christian tourism,” the rabbinical student responded. “I think many of these tourists have a theological viewpoint that requires Israel to be there for some future war. I don’t entirely understand it. But it is very uncomfortable to me…. It is a matter of debate about whether we should accept that kind of support.”

Walker nodded in agreement, even as she noted that she is “awed” by visits to the holy sites associated with Jesus.

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