Expert on inter-religious dialogue speaks from Jerusalem.
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Aleteia gets a Jewish perspective on the impending trip of the Holy Father to Jerusalem and what it’s like to live in one of the most peculiar and tense cities in the world, where all religions collide.
Mrs. Yiska Harani works with the JCJCR (Jerusalem Center for Jewish Christian Relations) and other governmental and non-governmental institutions in Jerusalem, as a teacher and promoter of the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism. She places a lot of emphasis in creating a personal encounter between the two faiths as a point of departure for a fruitful dialogue.
Jerusalem is a place with a lot of different religions balancing one on top of the other. What’s it like to live this?
I grew up in Jerusalem, and at some point I found that this was too intense for me and so I left and I live now in Tel Aviv, an hour away. I just come in to work. There is a burden and a privilege; there is sanctity and a lot of antagonistic feelings. It is a city of extremes. It is not a tranquil city at all. But this is the challenge, to try and live with whatever tenderness you can find in such a tense and conflictual society.
There is a feeling of zeal, of being particularistic and of holding on fiercely to the territory. Jerusalem is very hard-knock, therefore working in it and working with the people in it, is really quite challenging. But it must be done, otherwise people just stick to their own sort of ghettos and breathe this sense of isolation and particularism, instead of togetherness that the city should be.
How is religious freedom approached concretely by the people and by the authorities of Jerusalem?
There is definitely a greater freedom of religion in the city of Jerusalem under the authority of the last 60 years or so. Before, many of the holy sites were not accessible, but today, in general, muslims can worship where they want, Christians can worship where they want, Jewish people, except for Temple Mount (where there are still problems on our part that I think need to be resolved), can worship where they want.
However today the authorities are becoming more and more narrow in their view of the other communities that live in the city. In the times of the legendary mayor Teddy Kollek [1965-1967] there was a tremendous openness for the minority communities. For example one of the tiniest Christian denominations – the Syriac or Syrian Orthodox community in Jerusalem – every time there was a diplomatic celebration or procession they would be invited to demonstrate their their music and bands. There was an awareness and a praising of the fact that it is a multicultural city.
I don’t think that this is happening today. In education, very little is being taught about the other and even though this year the education ministry announced that “learning the other” is the theme of the year, many places chose the other to be a another type of Jewish person, and not the other as a Christian or a Muslim.
Mainly in the field of education but also in the ministry of religion and other ministries, our diversity is not seen as a resource. I think that diversity is a resource. We should look at these minorities, develop relationships with them, and ask them what they need. For me, the most important thing is that it should happen in terms of education.
What is the significance of Pope Francis’ trip for the people of Jerusalem and what will the consequences be?
It is a fantastic opportunity both for the Christian world, and for Jewish-Christian relations. For the Christians, the fact that there is a handshake between the Orthodox and the Catholic world means that this conflictual city can be a stage for handshakes with others. It is very symbolic. The fact that the pope and the patriarch – who 1000 years ago had a very terrible division – now come to reaffirm their handshake from 50 years ago in Jerusalem, shows that our city is capable of being not only a conflictual one.
The local Christians are encouraged that two very supreme figures in the Christian world will come here. They are allowing the Christian community to show itself, not to be invisible, as people would tend to think. So the local Christian community is enjoying it, and getting its own publicity and visibility that it should do. I am very happy for them.
For Jewish-Christian relations, I am overjoyed first of all that the pope is coming and paying homage to the handshake of 50 years ago. But also, unlike pope Paul VI fifty years ago, he comes to the whole state, not only to the Holy Land, not only to the Jewish people. Everything that he is going to do during this trip, all 260-something popes before him, wouldn’t have done even in their nightmares: going through the International Israeli Airport, going to the president’s residence, going to the Heichal Shlomo and going to Mount Herzl etc. So this is an unbelievable message, for the first time by the Vatican, a real affirmation of the relationship with the state of Israel, and also with Judaism at large.
Another element is that I am very happy that the Jewish people will see and hear the pope. I will be on television here, interpreting what is going on, and it is an opportunity to tell people, ‘look! What you didn’t know so far, you will know now!’ That is, about the relationship with the Vatican, and with the Christian world, the fact that there is a dialogue that is now going on nearly 50 years in a very amicable spirit. It is an opportunity to bring straight before the eyes of people a reality that otherwise they wouldn’t be aware of in their daily life.
The coming of the Pope is an incredible educational opportunity, even if there are people who want to hijack it to different ends. I am sure there are some radical Jews who are ready to demonstrate and argue, give false accusations, but in general I hope most media coverage will demonstrate the real relationship and general commitment for a better future.
What do you think about Pope Francis?
I don’t think there is any chance not to like the Pope!
To me the biggest message is that this person, who did not undergo the Second World War like the other popes, who has a perspective coming from outside this traumatic pain and experience, has this incredible, deep commitment to the relationship with Jewish people. To me this is a victory of the Church, it is a victory to him as a person for making this choice, it is a victory of the Vatican for having chosen this way, and here we have a pope who was uniquely chosen, and this anonymous person coming up is demonstrating that the Church taught him, what it really intends, which is this real, cordial, brotherly relationship with Judaism. I give complete praise both to his personality, but also to the work of the Church.
What are the specific challenges that lie ahead for fostering a fruitful dialogue between Christianity and Judaism?
For me, the place which I define as a laboratory for inter-religious relations is Mount Zion. It is a place where all popes visit. It is dear to the hearts of Muslims, Jewish people, and Christians. And so I see this mountain as a place where we should raise awareness that this city is multi-religious, it is multicultural, and these three religions have to live together because their common ground is the sanctity of the land.
Now mount Zion is a very problematic place over the last two years; it has been hijacked by radical Jewish people. I am working with a very good group of people, Jews, Christians and a few muslims, to transform the reality of this mountain into an educational laboratory where all people can come and see and appreciate the history, the spirituality and the coexistence of these religions.
Photo by Werner Kunz