The ongoing hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians have commanded attention in newspapers and on the nightly news across the globe. Eruptions of violence and deaths, even shootings during funerals, have caused sadness and anger, with virtually every action and response taking on political overtones.
Now, even one of the region’s few vestiges of peace, the Jerusalem International YMCA, in West Jerusalem, finds itself roiling and defending its Middle Eastern turf.
The Jerusalem International YMCA (JIY) has retained its neutrality in the fighting, as well its egalitarian management structure. Owned and operated by the Chicago-based YMCA of the USA (YUSA), the Jerusalem Y has been a refuge of reasonable discourse, directed by a 21-member board that is evenly divided among Jews, Arabs, and expatriates.
What sparked the controversy is a series of articles in YMCA World magazine, published by the World Alliance of YMCAs. The World Alliance had sent an international team to Palestine in November “to develop a new global YMCA strategy in addressing the question of Palestine,” according to the publication.
The report it released in late December was criticized for allegedly being biased by showing only the misfortunes of Palestinians, for failing to show concern and sympathy for the loss of Israeli lives, for not mentioning Palestinian violence and generally undermining the cause of peace and non-violence. Rizek Abusharr, Arab by birth and a Christian working in a predominantly Israeli area of the city, said the current fighting between Palestinians and Israelis is the worst he’s seen in his life. At 65, the JIY’s secretary general has witnessed the wars and Intifadas since the 1940s. Yet, he conveys a strong belief in the peace process and faith in the future – as well as confidence that the organization he runs will have had a role in fostering tomorrow’s leaders in the region.
Abusharr said the World Alliance’s articles were particularly upsetting, as they seemed to undermine the example the JIY has tried to set, to respect each other and be inclusive. The organization’s unique relationship with YUSA is maintained to keep one constituency from gaining the upper hand. Yet, the articles caused debate among board members.
Abusharr joined with a Muslim Arab, a Jew, and an “international person” on a committee to reach consensus on their response to the articles. “I had to use my articulation to the utmost,” he said. “Maybe much of what they said is true,” he said of the articles, “but there is another side of the story.”
Ken Gladish, YUSA’s president and CEO, objected to the Geneva-based World Alliance’s position and the implication that could be drawn, that YUSA was associated with the report. “The language, tone and characterizations included in these materials do nothing to aid the true cause of peace and stability,” Gladish wrote, “nor do they position the YMCA for effective service across the boundaries of dispute.”
The World Alliance explained that the report was based on the visit of an international team that visited predominantly Palestinian sections of the area including East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Gaza and Jericho. The alliance also noted international groups would visit predominantly Israeli areas in the future, as they have in the past.
When contacted via email, Secretary General Nicholas Nightengale of the World Alliance said, “Shortly, we shall publish on the Web the decisions taken by the executive committee on the implementation of our World Council resolution on the Palestine-Israel conflict.”
The JIY is seen as neutral ground in a land where neutrality has been difficult to find for centuries, if not millennia. The Y has been one of the only places where Jews, Arabs, and Christians have been willing to meet together and feel on equal footing.
Nestled among cypress and olive trees along King David Street, the Jerusalem Y sits on the outskirts of the Old City section of Jerusalem. Built in the 1930s, the rosy-pink stone building offers a commanding view of the whole area.
The Jesus Tower, which stands 50 meters tall, houses nondenominational chapels. The two other domes on each side of the building represent the body and the mind in the Y’s triangle design of its mission to foster “body, mind, and spirit.” The “body” dome, for example, houses the gym; the “mind” dome is home to the auditorium and theater. The Jesus Tower represents “spirit.” Not only does the vista offer views of holy sites to the region that the three religions consider sacred, the entire building honors each faith, according to Abusharr. Artifacts and words from the Koran, the Bible and the New Testament are echoed in the architecture. “Every animal and plant mentioned in the history of this land is etched in the stone in the columns of this building,” he said. “You sermonize by looking at a building of stone.”
During past uprisings Arab employees have made their way to work by cutting through orchards and climbing walls. Though Abusharr tried to be philosophical about the tensions of life there currently, he acknowledged the challenge the struggles cause. “This is a very tough situation we live under,” he said. “It doesn’t ease the pain for us. Our task is to make the situation better, to respect each other … to learn about each other’s language and culture and religion. … Otherwise we can’t be all inclusive.”
And when explosions occur outside a bus stop, or people are killed, “then people’s rage is very much stronger, so we have to work doubly hard,” he said. “Peace is the only solution to the people of this region.”
While Abusharr said inclusivity should not be difficult, “the pain and suffering is not simple. It’s very real,” he said. “We have to be thinking of what the other person is, who the other person is.” The staff of approximately 150 full- and part-time employees is designed to be equal in number among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. “My staff and I are determined at least to do our share to create a quietness,” he said. “(The Y) is the only place, still, in town where Jews and Arabs meet with respect for one another.”
The struggles just across the border, however, are not being forgotten. With less than 100 yards between it and the border, the East Jerusalem Y has had violence land almost on its doorstep, though others have fared worse. “There was a shell that fell in the Jericho YMCA training installation, which is a job-skills location,” said Dan Meier, YUSA’s director of association advancement. Luckily the event did not result in physical injuries.
“There’s also been light arms fire and a tank shell or two (near) the Beit Sahour YMCA,” Meier added.
Without mutual respect and understanding, there can be no inclusivity. “Respecting all,” Abusharr said, “that is our motto and the thing we hold so dear to our hearts.”