Preparing for my trip to Istanbul for an interfaith meeting, I was nervous about the challenging encounters that awaited me. Convened by the World Council of Churches, the meeting’s focus was, “Christian Self-Understanding in the Context of Judaism.” Two dozen Christian theologians would reflect on how Christians understand themselves and their tradition, with their relationships to Jews and Judaism in mind. I was one of three Jews invited to serve as participant-observers in this intra-Christian conversation – to bring Jewish ears and sensibilities, to identify Christian blind spots, and to reflect back what was unbearably painful.
Many of the Christian participants would be renowned theologians, largely from Europe and the U.S., who had been working on Christian self-understanding in penetrating, self-critical ways for decades. But this meeting, for the first time in the history of the World Council of Churches’ dialogue program, would also include Christian theologians from South America, from Malaysia, and from Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. I sensed that this would be a difficult few days, not a dialogue aimed at “tea and sympathy,” but an honest and painful encounter.
I was also keenly aware that this meeting was taking place just two weeks after the tragic death of activists on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish boat in the “Free Gaza” flotilla. Diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Israel were high, and shortly after the attack, it was reported that 10,000 Turks had gathered on a public square to protest Israel’s attack, carrying signs including some calling for the death of Jews. The conference coordinators suggested that no religious garb (e.g. the kippah I wear at all times) be worn on the streets.
I remembered the days when our own children had spent extended periods of time in Israel during the second Intifada, and my clear-minded husband would ask, “What is the statistical likelihood of our child being hurt in a random act of violence?” I knew that the diplomatic crisis would likely not translate into anti-Jewish violence on the street. Nonetheless, I felt frightened. Should I, in fact, not wear my kippah on the street? Would people be looking at me with animosity, recognizing that I was a Jew, hating me? But I also carried with me wise words of blessing from my daughter, a 23-year old activist for peace and justice in the Middle East. She had reflected on how wonderful it was that I had the chance to go to Istanbul precisely during this time of tension, to build relationships and to serve the cause of peace.
I have had occasion over the years to think deeply about the dynamics of fear, about how our views of “the other” create structures of fear in our minds which, in turn, cause us suffering. I remembered spending a week in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem some years ago. This was a Palestinian neighborhood, unfamiliar to me, and I felt unsafe. Entering the Old City through the Damascus Gate (which, like most Jews, I had never done) I wondered whether people would watch me with suspicion, even desire to harm me.
But with each passing day the place had become more familiar, and my fears began to feel exaggerated. Surely, tensions between Palestinians and Israelis were real. I needed to be sensible and alert. But I realized that I had been suffering from my own xenophobia, which produced its own mental realities: I don’t know those people; perhaps they hate me; perhaps they wish me harm. Becoming more familiar with the area, I came to appreciate the charm of this magical part of Jerusalem. I was coming to know “the other” and he no longer seemed so dangerous. I had deconstructed a large edifice of fear in my own mind and heart, and I felt liberated.
So, too, after my first day in Istanbul, I knew there was no reason for fear. Despite the diplomatic crisis, it was vanishingly unlikely that I would be assaulted by one of the city’s 15 million people. Beyond the statistical improbability, I had pressed beyond fear of the enemy, to bring myself fully to my time in this remarkable place.