The member of the Jewish organisation Roots and participant in the United Religions Initiative (URI) forum, Reuven Hanan Stone, currently resides in the Jewish Quarter, southwest of Jerusalem's Old City. Hanan, like many of the other members of the Initiative, is openly critical of the differentiation, separation and violence that has been plaguing and pitting Jews and Palestinians against each other in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite being Jewish, he is openly critical of the oppression of the Palestinian community and adds that this situation is made worse because "Jews and Palestinians don't listen to each other or try to understand each other". He believes that what separates the two communities is the fear they have of each other, something that needs to be changed.
However, in Dakhla, the host city of the Forum, Reuven shares a table for discussion and dialogue with Palestinians, motivated by the idea of finding common ground and finally achieving peace.
How can we have more initiatives like those proposed by the URI?
These kinds of initiatives are already happening in Jerusalem all the time through many people. There are things that are happening and nobody knows about them outside because the media is not interested. It's true that it's not the majority of society in Israel, but there are many initiatives. The media after all is a business and what sells is war, destruction, occasionally a personal story, but nobody is going to write about the work that people are doing all day and every day to bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Nobody is writing about the work that is being done by the people who participate in these initiatives all day and all the time, to bring, for example, Palestinians and Israelis together at the same table. These initiatives are dynamic spaces to be able to bring this together.
Among Jews we have a saying: two Jews, three opinions. Imagine that among millions of people, there are millions of opinions, it is the same in Palestine. There is not just one unified opinion, even if that is the image you want to give. Even if there is some unified opinion, for example, about the past or history, people have completely different ideas about how that can impact the present and the future. Some people say we just need justice, others advocate mercy. Others say to leave the past behind as long as they recognise a state of Palestine... initiatives like these give space for dialogue between two separate parties. The theme of this conference is so important and incredible. Not only for inter-religious dialogue but to prevent violent extremism through it.
What is happening right now in Jerusalem?
I cannot be false, I am a Jew and I can say that there is an occupation going on in territories that the Palestinians consider theirs and at the same time I can think that these territories are also sacred for us. For me all the stories in the Torah may be true, but that does not mean that I have to pretend that there is no occupation going on. The occupation is happening and we are not predestined to do that damage. The Jews did not return to their homeland after thousands of years to oppress other people.
Since I was a child I was taught that Israel, the whole territory, is our holy territory, what we call as "Promised Land". We were taught that, if that is true, there is no occupation. We learn that these are just circumstances of history of people who have ended up there and who want to kill us. They tell us that we go peacefully and that they are the ones who want to harm us. Nobody tells us directly, but it's like, when you are part of this kind of society, there is a collective understanding of what we are like and what the Palestinians are like.
As much as I believe that land is sacred to us, that doesn't justify what the Jews are doing there. It is not our destiny. It is not what we want to do, but we are doing it and we have to be honest with ourselves and understand that it is happening now. We have to change the situation, this is not automatic, it is very complicated and it is painful, but it is not a science, this is human rights. And we as humans have the power and the responsibility to do something different, to act differently and to change it.
How do some Israeli circles justify such violence?
Well, many argue that our pain is greater because we have been persecuted for thousands of years. That collective trauma has shaped how we see ourselves and how we relate to each other. We should neither fight nor compare. We are both right and we both need to create space for each other and understand each other's pain. When you understand that you can understand their fear and you wonder what they want, what their dreams are, what we can do.
There is an urgency for the Palestinians, they are under continuous threats, they are not allowed to build houses either. We can never have a healthy country if we keep the occupation. From the privilege we have we should do good things. We should use the position of power in this context. We have a massive military investment by the US that helps us to maintain that occupation. We have to use our position of privilege to do good and to help the most vulnerable.
We have to show that peace and cooperation at all levels will benefit everyone. The reason we are further and further away from peace is because the agreements we reach are not being followed or respected. For the Palestinians their lives, even with these agreements, have become worse. There are now even more checkpoints and even more military interventions.
On Jerusalem Day there are still violent clashes...
The only framework that is given is that of the few people who are violent. On Jerusalem Day, for example, Israeli citizens do not support violence against the Palestinian community. The people who provoke these episodes of violence don't even live in Jerusalem, they come on that day specifically. People come to provoke.
The majority of the population is not violent. The Israeli media only show the violent side of the Palestinians and vice versa. The vast majority of Israelis do not support extremists. There is not violence on the streets all the time. It happens sometimes, on nationalist days, people come to make trouble, but it's not the whole real picture. This year, in fact, it has not been so bad. Last year was much worse.
What are the first steps to bring about understanding between Palestinians and Israelis?
You can't change it overnight. It's very painful and it's going to take a long time, but it's not the only reality of life. It's not science, it's all created by human beings and we have the capacity to do something different and change it.
It is too much to ask Palestinians and Israelis to forget their past. What we need to do is to know each other's past, to know each other's pain and suffering and not to compare. Forgetting the discourse of my pain is worse than yours or I have suffered more. I know people who have lost their homes and now there are Jews living there, their pain is very real.
I think one of the big problems with these efforts was the language that was used about compromise and sacrifice. We have to make people see that real peace and cooperation across the board is good for everyone and would benefit all of us. The agreements we reached are not being followed by anyone else. Whether it is true or not, Palestinians and Israelis have to come to a better agreement.
These agreements will only work if they benefit all parties, with an improvement in their lives. But for the Palestinians their lives have been worse, fear of them has increased and more security measures have been taken for fear of an intifada or fear of a terrorist attack on buses and markets.
Many of my friends after growing up, learning and reading say: I am out of it. I have nothing to do with the politics of Israel, they support the Palestinian people and point to the Israeli state as the evil.
I think we have to change the situation. This is not automatic, it doesn't have to be this way. It is like this because we have built settlements, this is still happening every day and it is very difficult to change.
Do you think the current existence of the wall can continue to foster division?
The creation of the wall, the repressive attitude of the army... All these immediate responses from Israel are valid. We believe that the army's actions are the only ones that can keep us safe, but we have gone so far with the expropriation of houses, the violence...etc. They think that is defending themselves and vice versa.
They are not nice, wars are terrible for everybody, but they have the immediate feeling of, okay, we have to protect ourselves.
So you have suicide bombings, you create a wall. Now 20 years have passed and the wall is still there. The wall is perpetuating the conflict and making it difficult for us to reconcile. Jerusalem is one of the big economic centres, thousands of businesses are closed, people have worse living conditions, worse economy, more desperation, they have less to lose and if in that context a terrorist organisation appears with its propaganda, young people are more vulnerable to believe in it because they say to themselves that they have no other choice.
If I say this in many Israeli circles I would be told that I am justifying terrorism, something I am obviously not doing. We need to find a way to create that dialogue, that is why I am here. I believe that dialogue is important and I also believe that it is not enough.
I am not justifying violence, far from it, but I want to know where it comes from. What is the reason why the Palestinians are fighting. I empathise with Palestinians and with pain in general. I don't empathise with violence, but even if I don't empathise, I need to understand why it is happening, what drives people to violence, at the same time as I want the Palestinians to understand the fear that we Jews have.
The esplanade of the mosques has also become a point of conflict between Palestinians and Jews...
Al-Aqsa is suffering from a mixture of Palestinian propaganda that says Jews are trying to gain ground there. It's complicated because if you read our holy books there it says that's where the temple would be built. Even taking into account that the return of the messiah must be peaceful. I understand that the Palestinians say that's what we believe, but it's not true.
There is only a small group of radicals, the Israeli police know about them. They always try to stop them and don't let them in because they know they will cause a major conflict. However, there is still conflict because of the police presence on the esplanade. It doesn't look good at all.
We are so far away from a possible solution right now. I could tell you "if we can share between all of us" or "if two areas could be created". I wish we were at that point now, but we are too many steps behind before we can talk about it.
We are so far apart. We don't even know each other. There's a vast majority of people who haven't even met each other. We don't even speak the same language. There are misunderstandings about culture, religion... There is a basic work that needs to be done and events like these give us the opportunity.
How can coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis be encouraged?
Everyone who has a privilege has a responsibility not only to be aware of their privilege, but to learn from it and understand it. You have to go further, take more steps and use privilege to help more people.
I feel I have a responsibility to change the things I can change. All Jews and all Israelis have to use their position of power to try to bring about equality.
In this context, where we have massive military investment by the United States, we have been able to maintain the occupation for 40 years. If we are honest, people who recognise that this isnot right, we will not be able to have a healthy country even for Jews. Anyone who recognises this has to use their position of power and privilege to do good and to help vulnerable people.
Does the creation of different neighbourhoods in Jerusalem make you feel safe?
If you tell me to go into the Muslim quarter I wouldn't go. And if you ask a Palestinian, he would say the same thing. For me to be attacked would be strange, because I don't think it would happen, but I would also have the same fear.
There is a latent fear, would I really believe that they would attack me? No, but I wouldn't risk it either.
If I went to the Christian quarter, for example, I would feel a bit safer. But I'll tell you the truth... where I feel safe is obviously with my Jewish community but I would also feel safe if I went to the Christian quarter, accompanied by Palestinians, because I know they wouldn't attack me.
If, for example, Palestinian colleagues of mine also feel this fear when entering a Jewish neighbourhood, I would offer to go with them and maybe they would feel safer.
Is there a political party in Israel that advocates unity and reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians?
No. I think there is a movement growing among young people who appeal and fight for human rights. One of my work colleagues says that the political party he would vote for does not exist and that party would be one that integrates Jews and Palestinians in its formation.
There are now Palestinian and Arab members in the left-wing parties, in the parliament we had such a formation. One of the left-wing parties that is also fighting for this is the communist party, but it is very small, it has hardly any representation.
Technically there are a couple of parties in which there is a mix between Palestinians and Jews, but both what my colleague believes and what I believe is that there is no party that has as its identity or as its slogan this union between Palestinians and Jews.
I think there has to be a solution that at the moment is not on any political agenda. The starting point is to unite Arabs who have the status of Israeli citizens with Israelis themselves. This would be the bridge that could then unite the rest of the Palestinians.
There are many people who want to bring about change but they have no power or voice in the political arena. These have to be scaled up, there are people who have great ideas, they talk about federalism, about sharing common areas like security but they may have different nationalities and religions, but they don't have any kind of political power so we need to encourage their voices and help them. We need to find the good people who are doing good work to achieve this and who are able to create a big impact for the whole society. We don't have to wait any longer.