On the very day I arrived at the Jerusalem Campus of the Pontifical Biblical Institute on Paul Emile Botta Street in West Jerusalem, a stone’s throw from the old city, between the King David Hotel and Hebrew Union College, and sharing a wall with the Consulate of France, I decided it was a good time in the afternoon to go for a walk. From the flat roof of the PBI I spied an enormous United Nations flag on a hilltop a couple of miles to the South, toward Bethlehem, the Armon ha-Natsiv U.N. Observers Headquarters. I figured I could walk there, cut back down the valley a bit to the East, and return by way of the Temple Mount. “Perfect,” thought I, thinking I could take in that which is Jewish on the way and that which is Palestinian on the way back. I wish no harm to anyone, and am in solidarity with anyone who is not harming others. Without telling anyone, and without hearing the news of what had happened that morning, away I went.
After arriving at the U.N., looking this way and that, I cut down across the gardens, jumped a couple of walls (I was younger then, and still in the extreme sport mode of a kid), and saw a stepped path down the small mountain. There was no “dividing wall” as there is today. Looking very Jewish, those who saw me deep in this West Bank territory immediately looked away, not wanting to be involved in trouble. That was itself an education as to how terribly on edge people were. Perhaps they thought I was some sort of undercover Israeli soldier. I did not know that they had good reason to think that on that very day. I was only in the Holy Land for a couple of hours and was already getting an understanding of the “atmosphere,” or so I thought. I was used to the North woods of Minnesota. What was to come in another thirty minutes or so would open my eyes wide.
The intervening walk to Jerusalem, jumping another wall or two, provided a magnificent view of the old city and the Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock gleaming in the afternoon sun. I was imagining all sorts of biblical occurrences, the dancing of David when he was bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, the rebuilding of the second Temple, and then, with Herod, the Third. The destruction again of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. On and on. I thought about the Last Supper, the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, the betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the ever so modern, ever so ancient rivalries among the children of Abraham, with Catholics from the time of Jesus being in the middle. Getting to know the lay of the land was the point of this walk. What better to do on my first day, right?
Finally, I was quite close to Silwan, but still some distance South of the Temple Mount, and some rocks came bouncing along the street, meaning that the throwers, whom I could not see at all, were far away, perhaps a couple of hundred yards. They were kindly letting me know that I was not at all welcome there. I would hate to think that Catholic clergy are not welcome anywhere. I stopped, and the rocks stopped. I took a few steps forward, the rocks started up again, causing me to dance like David. I now saw a number of boys. They stopped, though I suppose only so that these my interlocutors whose words were rocks could gather their words, that is, more ammunition, more rocks. I continued another fifty yards or so in this time, and now the sky was full of rocks. I had to be careful now. I spied a lemonade stand to the side of the road in a tin hut and took refuge there. “Lemonade” in the West Bank, because of the economic slavery imposed by Israel, consists of flavored sugar syrup, quite horrid, but it was a lifesaver. The rocks stopped immediately.
Thinking that this strategy would eventually get me up to the Temple Mount I surveyed the road ahead and spied another stand another fifty yards up the way where I could let things calm down a bit, knowing that the next stand after that, if there was one, could well be manned by the rock throwers themselves. By now I was much closer to the rock throwers, but I figured they were as scared of me as I was of them, and so would move back a bit. I was too tired and loathe to backtrack up to the United Nations now so far away, and knowing I couldn’t jump back up the walls over which I had come. And it was now evening, and would soon be night. Running would only mean weakness, that I had no weapons (which I didn’t have, of course), and that I could be killed at will. There was no option but to forge ahead, using the famous Jedi trick of simply forging ahead.
So, away I went, right down the middle of the street, in the direction of the Temple Mount, much to their befuddlement I’m sure. That’s the point of the Jedi trick. I would rather not imagine what they said about me in those moments, trying to figure me out. I’m not alone in this experience, mind you. Saint Ignatius of Loyola did precisely the same thing, but this time he was simply going from the Temple Mount and up the facing Mount of Olives so as to visit the Church of the Ascension at the top. He got himself into trouble as well, and was duly reprimanded after the fact.
The Jedi strategy worked for another few hundred yards, and I saw what would be the last possible refuge, a boy selling souvenirs underneath an overhang of the porch of his cement house. The entire family was at home. At this point, the village of Silwan is built straight up the mountain, with house built upon house all the way up. Lots of windows and little roof tops from which to launch rocks unto the street far below. The family immediately knew what was happening, as an odd rock would now and again be tossed down in front of my feet from high above, testing to see if I was still there under the overhang. We talked quite a bit about why I was studying the Scriptures, coming from Rome and staying at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and that I was Catholic. The father was following this very closely, asking many questions and ascertaining that my story was true, that I meant no harm, that I only wished them the most profound peace in every way. With every answer I gave, you could literally see the tension melt away and a certain humor enter in. Yes, I was just that stupid, that sincere, that full of peace and, in the end, perhaps that savvy. All was right with the world again. He now knew he could stop the rocks at any moment and provide the hospitality also of guaranteed safe passage through their village. And then it happened, the nightmare of nightmares…
His little girl, perhaps only three years old, somehow had climbed down the steep cement steps on the side of the cement porch by herself and walked out in front of us in the middle of the street. With this movement, there was instantaneously a shower of rocks raining down upon her, including a cinder block, which, missing her by just a few inches, shattered all around her. In that reign of violence was her father, who just that quickly had her back up on the porch underneath the overhang. Miraculously, no one had been hit. That scene is burned into my mind forever. The rocks stopped, as they realized what they had just done, and the father was instantly out on the street again shouting things in Arabic, with some of those things going better untranslated here. He was also explaining who I was and what I was doing there, and that I had expressed my solidarity with them, and only wanted peace for them. He told them that I was their guest and the guest of Silwan. He then told me that I had nothing to worry about. I could also be in the peace which I had wished for them. They sent me on my way with warm goodbyes.
I took him at his word, of course, and he was right. I walked right out into the middle of the street, stopped, turned around to wave goodbye. Peace. And then, no problems, not ever, not in wading through Hezekiah’s tunnel alone, not in going up route 60 from Hebron to Jerusalem alone or going down route 90 from Galilee to Jericho alone, or anywhere in any quarter of Jerusalem alone. Some might condemn me for unpredictable possibilities such as the little girl being in danger, but, really, I did not know this in advance. I had only wanted to go out for a walk. Having a result that I thought was an asset to dialogue was, it seems to me, what God had in mind the whole time.
That happy result was not appreciated in the PIB, when I got back, it being said how foolhardy I was, reprimanding me for not checking about conditions beforehand. I was told that a number of Palestinian boys had been killed that very morning by the IDF right there in Silwan. No wonder the boys had been upset. Their best friends had just been killed, then and there, just hours before. I can certainly understand their reaction. But, all the more, thought I, what happened with me being there was even more important. I mean, if your best friends had just been shot dead in such an ongoing rivalry, and someone personally came to you at great risk, expressing solidarity and the wishing you the best for knowing some peace, wouldn’t that shift your paradigms, even just a tiny little bit? I think so, and I think that’s important.
It was happenstance, but most things are in life, the important things, right? Sometimes what we plan is useless as there is too much self interest. The Holy Spirit goes where he wills. If we are not with Him, what is it that we are doing?
Oh, and one last thing, just to insist a bit. All of this that I am recounting is “dialogue” at its most basic, its most fundamental: goodness and kindness and availability to express the same, regardless of religion or whatever. Such basic things are most important as first steps to fuller dialogue in which, for instance, the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity might well be presented in a manner which is fruitful because of this kind of preparation. There are those who are scandalized if the entire body of doctrines is not presented on any and every occasion to anyone who is not a full-on Catholic. That is simply not possible. They call that impossibility “relativism.” But that is simply not the case. Pope Francis is asking us to start where we can start. Sometimes that simply means providing safety to others, selling them a bit of lemonade in dangerous circumstances, using choice vocabulary words to put aggressors in place. You get the picture.
Oh, and am I saying that the IDF wasn’t right in gunning down those kids? Well, I just don’t know the circumstances. Sometimes self-defense is necessary. Maybe it had to be done. What I do know is that there needs to be a healing process. That’s part of mercy, part of dialogue. Showing goodness and kindness is not evil. It just isn’t. Also see: Pope Francis verses insincere interreligious dialogue