Guest commentary by Matthew Skolnik
In my living room sat a young Israeli man and his soon-to-be wife. Shay sat on a kitchen chair that I pulled into the room while Mayana rested on an ottoman. Her elbows were pressed upon her legs as she leaned forward to speak and listen. She was friendly but on guard. Shay also supported his arms. His thumbs were turned out and his palms thrust downward on his thighs.
Within a foot of Shay sat Zoughbi, a mid-aged Palestinian man. Zoughbi pushed his body tall against the back of his chair with his arms raised comfortably on the side rests.
Zoughbi had been born and raised in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he now lives and works. Shay also knows Bethlehem well. Shay used to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a commander and was commissioned to Bethlehem.
Previously I had spent time with each of these three beautiful people and I had learned to trust their hearts and desires. That day I knew that I was asking a lot of each of them, and I am not sure how I would have responded if I were in their position.
Sitting down and facing an enemy is a profound event and, at times, life changing.
As we gathered I said very little. In addition to welcoming everyone with warmth, I only asked a few appropriate questions. We started by sharing stories of our personal names. My job that day was simply to create the space and be a calm mutual friend.
About 10 minutes into the conversation tensions began to rise. “Would anyone care for chai?” I asked. Moments later we were sipping tea, breaking bread and sharing a bowl of hummus.
An hour into the conversation, I had to leave to get my kids from the bus and take them to Lego League (which, by the way, is not just for the kids!). I never imagined that the first meeting would last more than 45 minutes. Yet, at this point, all seemed to be going well. So, with a silent prayer and a few hugs I headed out the door.
When I returned later that night, I found Zoughbi still sitting in his chair and working on his laptop. It was a joy to find out that Mayana and Shay had stayed an additional hour. Looking to the TV tray I saw that the tea, humus, bread and vegetables were all nearly gone. Three people whose countries were enemies enjoyed two hours of sharing stories and asking questions. They closed their time together with a blessing. “One day soon may we gather in Jerusalem as peaceful neighbors.”
Asked about the gathering, Mayana said, “We all want the same thing. We all want peace. We all want to raise our families. We all want to go to work and enjoy our lives in freedom and security. It is important to see one another as humans and not enemies.”
The cost: Less than $10 of food.
Zoughbi is old enough to remember what it was like to have Israeli friends and visit Jerusalem. Shay, Mayana and Zoughbi’s children, however, are too young to have such memories. They, like others in their generation, have never had normal (or somewhat normal) relationships with their predetermined enemies. Because of this lack of relationships, the atmosphere for peace, justice and security worsens by the day.
There certainly are different approaches to peace, but one that is certainly biblical is breaking bread. So, if you grab the tea, I’ll grab the hummus and we can find some friends to break bread with together.
MATTHEW SKOLNIK is a pastor in Muskingum Valley Presbytery, teaches applied calculus at the University of Mount Union and has friends in several Middle Eastern countries. He is passionate about reaching out to those who suffer from the multiple forms of violence in the region and encouraging the church who serves tirelessly there.