I visited Israel for the first time in the winter of 1995. I was a participant in the International Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Pilgrimage began in December in Oswiecim, Poland (more commonly known with its German spelling: Auschwitz) and was to end on August 6 in Hiroshima, Japan. By mid-January we were walking through the “Holy Land” a mere two weeks after the Beit Lid bombing near the resort town of Natanya. Everywhere tensions were high, and to ensure our safety the Israeli government limited the scope of our walk. Originally we were scheduled to trek from the Galilee to Jerusalem, but due to the security concerns, we ended up being based in a monastery in East Jerusalem. From there we made daily visits to a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli peace and social justice organizations. We listened to an endless array of speakers who each described and decried the legal and political quagmire, often with a rage and vehemence that was unsettling and uncomfortable. Despite any individual discomfort, as a polyglot group we prayed in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Thai, English, French, Italian and Japanese for a just and peaceful solution. It was demanding, soul wrenching, and potentially ulcer producing prayer.
On one of our rare unscheduled days, a young German woman called Katrine and I decided to take walk from our digs in East Jerusalem to the Old City. Katrine was, as usual, dressed in black leather pants and a zipped up, vintage, original punk era, black leather jacket. Her face sported a pair of severe, black-framed spectacles and she was smoking de rigueur hand-rolled cigarettes one after the other the whole walk. After a few hours of tooling around the shuk, we picked up some supplies for dinner and began our return trip.
We decided to take a shortcut through the Kidron valley and as we made our ascent out of the canyon, out of nowhere a group of six Arab guys suddenly blocked our way.
“What you are doing here?” shouted the leader in thickly accented English.
“Walking,” I responded cooly.
The pumped up leader of the pack snapped back,
“American? Where you are going?” Angry spittle shot from his lips, he was tense, his neck was striped with straining tendons and ligaments.
“We’re just walking.” I said, calmly but firmly. Katrine went pale, which no amount of black leather could hide. She became speechless, and most tellingly, dropped her cigarette.
The alpha guy leaned towards me and hissed, “Give me money!!!” Without thinking it through very carefully I said, “No.”
The other guys started to shuffle uncomfortably. Apparently I was not following the script. In response the ringleader picked up a rock about the size of a honeydew melon. With well-muscled arms he raised the rock slightly higher than my head. “Money, American!” he snarled, “Give us money!”
And then I entered one of those moments that manage to elude time. All I could think about was that I had been walking 20 miles every day for almost two months, retracing the steps of death marches, and traveling through fully active war zones. I had been praying with Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and Jains; I had sat with Serbs and Croats and Bosnians all under the same roof: I had watched a former Nazi and a group of holocaust survivors weep and dance together; I had listened to endless stories of repression, oppression, redemption, repentance, and forgiveness. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights, because the gang started moving in a little closer on me and Katrine. The kingpin’s nostrils flared, he cocked the rock back and he barked, “Give me money!” MONEY!”
Our eyes met, I was breathing slowly, he was panting, the rock was looming. “MONEY! MONEY!”
We were face to face. I started praying with my eyes. I didn’t look at the rock he held aloft above us; rather, I let my green eyes focus on his brown eyes. With our eyes locked something magical transpired; weirdly, I felt that he and I were floating high above that ancient valley. Beyond all reason, suspended high above the war torn rocks, and prophets’ tombs, we held each other in what I can only describe as a spiritual embrace. Hovering above ourselves for an impossibly long instant, I heard my own disembodied voice draw me back to earth. I took a deep, and possibly last, breath and said firmly, lovingly, compassionately, “No. No money.”
The other guys stood alert, arms cocked, primed to fly blows. They watched us attentively, ready to follow his lead. He brusquely cocked his chin off to one side and spat, then he threw the rock in the same direction and it rolled down the hill. He leaned in towards us, demonstrated his expertise with colorful English insults, and then turned and dashed away. Nimbly they danced down the side of the valley, stirring up and disappearing into a cloud of ancient dust.
Once they left, the shock set in. Katrine and I were still rooted to the spot for several minutes. When we finally were able to move, we discovered our knees had jellified so we held onto each other and clambered all wobbly up the path. Once we made it back to the monastery, we collapsed in the soft grass under an old olive tree.
That day has both haunted and inspired me. Of course, there are all the “what ifs” and yet the fact remains that I walked away unscathed. That encounter afforded me an opportunity to live out my deepest values, and to let my faith do the heavy lifting. My gut response to the threat of being biblically stoned was pure fear. I must admit I am more than a little surprised that my spiritual response was pure love for my fellow human. If nothing else, that experience clearly illuminated the outrageous power to be found within the biblical injunction to “v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha”-- love your neighbor as yourself. By its light I was able to see a that a pumped, young Palestinian guy, who was poised to heave a boulder at my head, was really just a frustrated, angry, powerless person; someone who was desperately grabbing at something that he mistakenly thought might bring him some sense of worth.
His rage and hubris brought all of us to a precarious perch, yet, incredibly, we all walked away from that place alive, and maybe even a little better for it. I know that for me, it was a moment of testimony—a terrifying and dangerous moment that proved for me the power of unconditional love. To this day I am amazed that I found it in myself to love a guy who had a big rock poised for the express purpose of dashing my brains out. Will I ever be able to love like that again? That question continues to flummox, needle and plague me and probably will the rest of my life.
I think about my would-be-attacker often. I hope he was as affected by that moment as I have been. I wonder if he is still alive. And I wonder if he sometimes lies awake at night praying, “Thank God I did not become a murderer that day in the Kidron valley.” I wonder if he shudders when he thinks about it as I do. And I wonder if, like me, he marvels at the redemptive power a ray of unconditional love yields. After all these years, I continue to ask myself, “If I could love that guy, under those circumstances, why am I so spiritually bankrupt when it comes to more mundane conflicts?” Maybe, it was because we managed to cut to the bone, to make a brief but real connection that transcended all the fraught history and suffering, and which allowed both of us to see each other as humans, each one a facet of the divine image.
In my subsequent trips to Israel, I’ve returned to the stand on the edge of that valley. Looking out at the olive trees and rocks, I breathe and meditate on loving my neighbor as myself, and I offer up my gratitude for what I learned from that young man who drew me into a holy game of chicken. Sometimes, when I remember him I think he was an angel, because, in even in my most cynical times, I can restore my faith by remembering that once upon a time, in a terrible, beautiful moment in the Kidron Valley, an American Jew and a Palestinian Arab really saw each other and together chose life.