‘Two truths living together with dignity’: Confronting doubt in Israel and Palestine

Open Quest stories
Country in focus

Koy Thomson

16 August 2017

A participant from our Israel-Palestine Open Quest in May reflects on the courage of Israelis and Palestinians who are rejecting the certainties of old narratives.

The last thing I wrote in my sketchbook, after leaving Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial complex, was my name: Koy Thomson. I wrote it fearfully. I knew it would make a connection to those six million other names in a way that I didn’t really want it to.

What does it mean to write your name alongside Ester Frankel, who threw a desperate message from the deportation train for anyone who found it to look after her beloved son Richard? I don’t know, but I felt the power of naming.

Does Yad Vashem give the dead back their humanity? Does it return to them memories of love? Not really. But I don’t think that’s its job. Its job is to give them back their names. Mine is to honour their names by remembering them.

Resisting anger – for Szabtaj Bliacher, an actor who put on plays in the Vilna Ghetto

Jerusalem. Entering the Old City through the Dung Gate you see a sign to a lost items centre: “Lost and Found at the Western Wall.” I chuckled at the religious parallel. Would anyone else, I wondered? After all, I was at the global epicentre of taking religious texts (and everything else) completely literally.

Later in the week, I met a remarkable American Settler called Shaul at the Palestinian–Israeli NGO Roots. He said: “The Talmud says we should not bow down to idolatry. Anger is idolatry and I will not bow down to it.”

This was echoed by Antwan from the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian NGO, as he guided us through the Aida Camp in East Bethlehem: “You cannot submit yourself to conflict,” he told us.

Photo: Shaul Judelman and Ali Abu Awad at Roots

Two truths in unison – for Zecharia Artstein, 20 years old

A sanctuary near a busy junction, Bethlehem. Ali from Roots – a former Palestinian fighter whose brother was killed by the Israel Defence Forces – said: “We have a vision of two truths living together with dignity.”

I was reminded of something my mother used to say: “Darling, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism – deep down they are all the same thing.” I would reply, “But Mum, you still think Buddhism is the best don’t you?”

No, perhaps we must respect difference, and take a lesson from the poet John Keats. The poetic sensibility – which he called “negative capability” – is the ability to hold contradictory ideas and still get on with life.

Inner landscapes – for Charlotte Saloman, four months pregnant, a painter of wonderful lives

On the road to a Druze village in Northern Jerusalem. I learned that there is no real separation between the person and the land. I felt the pull of the land as something not separate from myself. Shaoul – the crown prince of metaphor – seemed to help: “You have to flip things on their head. Ownership of land is too problematic. You have to change ownership to belonging’.

Antwan responded: “The land belongs to God.”

Photo: Antwan Saca from the Holy Land Trust at the Wall in Bethlehem

Small miracles – for Edith Stern, whose birthday would fall on the day after my visit to Yad Vashem: 22.05.1925

On a bus somewhere. There are distinct political, human rights and justice realities. I was beginning to grasp the logic, structure and psycho-history of settlement and occupation. It is a mechanism that has been wound up, and is running, under its logical clockwork.

Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to Britain from 2011 to 2015, told us that peace requires negotiations that are set in motion by an upward spiral of confidence-building. “Peace is a series of small, extraordinary miracles,” he said.

Without dialogue, where are the small extraordinary miracles?

Photo: Letters to God slipped between the cracks of the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

Leading through self-realisation – for Alexander Nagler, Charlotte Saloman’s husband

Back home in London. How has the Quest affected me? One thing is a determination to internalise the ‘Quest spirit’ of open enquiry, respectful listening, friendship and invitation to engage.

By invitation to engage, I mean a recognition of the generosity of our Israeli and Palestinian hosts in sharing their experiences. I mean a duty to help where you can, and to incubate your experience to the point where learning flowers.

Photo: Walking the Stations of the Cross in Old Jerusalem

Which meetings most resonated with me? It has to be my encounters with Shaoul, Ali, Antwan and Sami, Director of the Holy Land Trust. Each has freed themselves from the tyranny of their internal ruling narrative, deciding instead to confront personal doubt and economic uncertainty. Each has started again. Their human example has been a great gift to me, and I appreciate it deeply.

The Old City got me thinking about the leadership styles embodied in different religions. Did Jesus understand that spiritual development is essentially up to the individual? Was his a gentle style of leadership that demands nothing but self-realisation?

If so, as a Buddhist I say, “That’s my kind of leadership!” Perhaps that’s why Shaoul, Sami and Ali impressed me so much.

Koy Thomson is chief executive of Children in Crisis UK, a charity focused on education, care and protection in vulnerable countries.