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A conversation with Eliyahu McLean, peacenik

by simone August 24 2008
InterviewNewsThings to do

Eliyahu McLean

Descended from a long line of Christian pastors on his father's side and rabbis on his mother's (the two met while hitchhiking to a hippie commune in California), peacemaker Eliyahu McLean has been dedicated to interfaith work since he was a college student at UC Berkeley. Co-founder and Co-director of the Jerusalem Peacemakers, Eliyahu is also the interfaith coordinator at the annual Sulha gathering, coming up this week at the Latrun Monastery.

Please tell us a bit about your background and the various initiatives with which you are involved. I grew up in Hawaii, where I was involved with Young Judea, which brought me to Israel for the first time when I was 15. When I returned at 18 for Year Course, I met Rabbi Shlomo Carleabach and was influenced by his teachings. From there, I went to UC Berkeley, where I became a pro-Israel activist on campus. That got me interested in bridge-building work, and I began studying Middle Eastern Studies. I was back in Israel again for my junior year, though my program was canceled due to the Gulf War. Instead, I got involved with the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace – I traveled to Bethlehem that year and Egypt, where I studied Islam and Sufism. When I returned to Berkeley, I began leading interfaith projects but I was really drawn to doing that sort of work here in Israel.

In 2000, I helped found the Jerusalem Peacemakers, a network of independent interfaith peacemakers, and I'm the interfaith coordinator of the Sulha Peace Project [a grassroots peace initiative]. Our annual gathering is taking place this year August 26th-28th at the Latrun Monastery. I help secure permits for part of our Palestinian delegation – we ask for 700 permits, and I'm in charge of 150 of them. I'm also in charge of making sure the kitchen is kosher, the Beit Tefillah prayer space, and interfaith panels about reconciliation, ecology, conflict resolution andAt the Big Hug with Rav Frumin and Moslems the concept of sulha (mediation) in religious traditions.

In the case of The Big Hug and some of the other projects you're involved with, the message seems to be less about specific issues or solutions and more about just getting together to spread loving vibes. How much of a difference can loving vibes make? These projects are about more than just loving vibes: They're about rebuilding trust. Last year, before the Big Hug, a Palestinian taxi driver was murdered by a French Jew and there was a lot of tension around the area of the Damascus Gate and only when the mother of the murderer called up the father of the victim, and went to meet with him, did it calm down the anger and the tension and we were able to hold that event, because trust had been rebuilt. There were about 2,000 people involved in that event - soldiers, settlers, Palestinians - all coming together, and the idea of it was not just positive, good vibes but specifically about finding a new way that we can all respect and honor Jerusalem, about showing our shared love for Jerusalem. I think on a small scale we succeeded, and we want to make it a more long-term type of thing.

Do you see Jerusalem primarily as a hotbed of conflict or as a model of coexistence? It has the potential to be either. If you look at the word Yerushalayim (Jerusalem in Hebrew), it breaks down into the Hebrew words yeru, you will see, and shalayim, shalom, peace. The double form of the word peace implies that there are two Jerusalems, a heavenly Jerusalem, and an earthly Jerusalem. In the earthly Jerusalem there definitely are big problems. All you need to do is open the paper on any given day and you'll see a long list of them, rampaging bulldozer drivers, housing demolitions, problems with trash and litter removal. In the heavenly Jerusalem, we have mashiach (the messiah) and peace. Right now there's a huge gap between the two Jerusalems and our role is to narrow that gap. Not to live in bliss and denial, but to work to bring the two Jerusalems together. We don't want to be in denial of reality and its problems, but we don't want to be eternal pessimists either.

Those who love and/or live in Jerusalem are usually considered to be somewhat right-wing politically. How do you go about packaging your message in such a way that they can hear it? People often ask me, "Are you left-wing because you work with the Arabs, or are you right-wing because you're religious and spend a lot of time in the territories?" - with my rabbi, Rav Froman in Tekoa, or in Bat Ayin? My response is that it takes two wings to fly.

I think my message is heard because I try not just to approach what's wrong, like some groups on the left that just criticize what's wrong with Israeli policy, or those on the right that just criticize the attacks against Jews etc. At the Jerusalem Peacemakers, we're taking a different approach, trying to show by positive example rather than negative. We show the example of the peace that we live and we hope can be lived on a larger scale. We live as a feeling of family. One of the projects of the Jerusalem Peacemakers is the Abrahamic reunion – we bring together Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze leaders, including the chief rabbi of Sdereot, Rabbi Zion Cohen, and the chief rabbi of Ramat Shlomo (a charedi neighborhood in Jerusalem). All these different people get together to show publicly that people who believe strongly in their own faith can still collaborate and cooperate and create a vision of building a shared future in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Many people who strive to make a difference in the world get frustrated with their efforts and end up disillusioned and bitter. How do you make sure that doesn't happen to you? We create an alternative reality: We don't deal with this reality; we make a new one. For example, we are trying to empower moderate Islamic leaders. Especially in Jerusalem, you often hear people saying that all Muslims are extremThe Big Hugist, and we are trying to help the moderates out there get their voices heard, both amongst Israel's Jewish population and in their own communities, through humanitarian projects. It's these types of projects that give Hamas their power, so if we have moderates running the same type of social welfare organizations, it will give them legitimacy in the eyes of their own community.

When we have 4,000 people coming to the Sulha or 70 people squeezing into my west Jerusalem apartment for my birthday - including Jews from Nachlaot and Bat Ayin, Christians from Ramallah and Moslems from Bethlehem - all gathering together, it's hard to be disillusioned.

Please share with us two or three of your favorite Jerusalem spots that to you sum up everything that is Jerusalem. The roof of David's Tomb on Mount Zion is one of my favorite spots because you can see the Mount of Olives and the edge of the Old City.

Nachlaot or Machane Yehuda is also a quintessential Jerusalem spot, because it has a mixture of hippie-Chassidic Jews, secular Israeli artists and musicians, charedim and Sephardim.

And of course, Har HaBayit (The Temple Mount) and the Kotel (Western Wall). Those are definite. I mean, the whole world is focused on those spots. I would like to see a Har Habayit where we could all come and pray and cooperate together. Jerusalem should not be a point of conflict, it should be a point of cooperation. We can build the concept of the Beit Hamikdash (The Holy Temple) by building a bridge of trust with our neighbors and not through force. According to our tradition, the Temple Mount will be a place where all nations can come together in prayer and cooperation.

Photos of Eliyahu McLean (top), the Big Hug with Rav Froman (middle) and the Big Hug in front of the Old City walls (above) courtesy of Eliyahu McLean.

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