Last week I was privileged to spend a week in Jerusalem as part of an assessment of 3FF’s work in the Middle East. The four quarters of Jerusalem’s old city connect and coexist without any barriers dividing them. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Armenians get on with their daily lives. In the Christian Quarter the sharing of space within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian and Coptic Christians is, despite its complications, a powerful symbol of how those within communities riven with internal divisions can find ways to live alongside each other.
However, from the outset it was clear to me that, in this fascinating, engaging and beautiful city, fear is never far from the surface. This fear is part of a pervasive and multi layered reality in light of the weight and consequences of history in this part of the world. Fear and lack of trust are very real. Coexistence may be a commonly used word, but it is not the same as a shared society. Diverse faiths, beliefs and cultures are in close proximity to each other. But the considered sharing of social, political and economic space is not such a reality.
Jerusalem is rich in its narratives. Different and competing narratives. Not only those that centre on the prophets of Mohammed, Moses and Jesus, but also those about secularism and orthodoxy (and the many degrees of religiosity in-between), and above all about what it means to be Israeli or Palestinian.
Each group holds its narrative close. The narratives conflict not only between communities of difference, but also within individuals, families and communities themselves. A secular Israeli may express frustration and anger towards the rising influence of the religious, whilst also retaining deep suspicion of Muslim motivations they consider aimed at eroding their identity; the Muslim woman who showed us around her city of Lod spoke at once about the anger she felt about the continued suppression of the Arab community whilst also espousing the need for a shared society in which Muslims and Jews could openly discuss their differences without fear of one another.
This is something of the context in which we work. 3FF has a Middle East branch which runs seminars for health sector staff to explore religious and cultural differences so that there is not only openness to difference, but an ability to deal with it in an informed and effective way for the patient. We are about to start the third year of this work, in hospitals across Israel and in partnership with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
We witness on a daily basis that hospitals are places where people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures come together through necessity. The common denominator is human life and health, and the elimination of suffering, both physical and mental. Staff of different religious and cultural backgrounds work alongside each other, unlike in the more segregated education system. As one doctor said to me, politics doesn’t come in to the hospital. Health care is a common need and something staff are committed to delivering for all.
This does not mean it is always easy for interactions between staff and patients however. Different attitudes towards issues such as organ donation, end of life, rituals, and modesty are firmly rooted in different cultural norms and challenge staff and patients alike.
The appreciation of difference that is generated through our seminars does not stay in the hospital but, as patients and staff return to their communities, also contributes to the gradual development of a new narrative. A narrative about how different faiths, beliefs and cultures can share health care and the well-being that comes from this, and about how this approach might also be applied to dealing with other shared needs such as safety, economic opportunity and justice.
As we continue to engage, we remain humbled by the inclusive approach to healthcare that is increasingly evident in Israel, and by the different ways in which individuals and communities manage to deal with their fears and hopes. This maybe what is often referred to as coexistence, or it may just be the inching towards a shared society.