Jerusalem YMCA crosses religious barriers

December 31, 2011


This was a bleak year for anyone who dreams of Middle East peace or Arab-Jewish coexistence.

So I’d like to write about an institution in Jerusalem that brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together, and about its director, who has bridged divides that seem insurmountable.

I refer to the Jerusalem International YMCA, in West Jerusalem, a landmark whose 152-foot tower looks down at the walls of the Old City. This may be the world’s most unusual YMCA, where even the architecture symbolizes the linkage of three faiths. And its dynamic CEO, Forsan Hussein, has a unique ability to move between Jewish, Arab and Western worlds.

I have stayed several times at the Y’s comfortable (and moderately priced) Three Arches Hotel. Yet I only learned its full history when I sat down with Hussein under a shady umbrella at the Y’s lovely outdoor cafe, across from the famed King David Hotel.

Founded in a bookstore near the Old City in 1878, the YMCA was shut down by the Turks during World War I and later reopened by the British. It moved several times before construction of the current building began in the 1920s after a $1 million Christmas donation from James Jarvie of Montclair, N.J., who was inspired by plans to make the institution a center for people of all faiths.

Designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, architect of the Empire State Building, the neo-Byzantine-style stone complex is covered with decorative elements that represent the three monotheistic faiths. The phenomenal carillon bells in the tower are played by a Jewish Israeli professor and a Mormon American.

When the building was dedicated in 1933 by British Gen. Edmund Lord Allenby, he had these words inscribed on the front in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten ...” (For more on the building, visit www.jerusalemymca.org.)

Fast forward to the present. As Hussein talked, parents were coaxing small children up the Y’s steps to the YMCA Peace Preschool, where half the children are Muslim and Christian Arabs, and half are Jews. “We want to make the YMCA a center for reconciliation,” Hussein told me. “Every Israeli and Palestinian can feel at home here.

“We have a completely mixed Arab-Jewish membership,” he said, that takes part in athletics (a new sports center is being completed), a famed concert series, a Palestinian-Israeli theater group, and a young leaders’ club called Moderate Voices for Progress. The Y’s board is also a mix of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

When it comes to bridging the divide, however, few can equal the personal story of Forsan Hussein.

Born in the small Muslim Arab village of Shaab in the Galilee, his mother was illiterate and his father had only an elementary school education. The family’s extensive olive groves were seized by the Israeli army in the 1948 war.

As a youth, tending his family’s sheep after school, Hussein wandered over to the neighboring moshav (Jewish cooperative farm) and began asking questions. “I was trying to figure out,” he says, “why there were such discrepancies between their lives and ours, why did they have a soccer field with grass while we played on stone fields and had unpaved roads?”

He became friendly with some moshavniks, and helped start village-moshav exchanges that grew into a joint summer camp. Eventually, a moshav member nominated him for the Slifka Israeli Coexistence Scholarship at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., which is awarded to Israeli Arabs and Jews who work to promote tolerance. He won the grant, and entered an entirely new world.

From Brandeis, Hussein went on to a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an MBA at Harvard. He started raising funds for the first private equity fund that would invest in the Israeli Arab economy, but the money was slow in coming.

He seized on the offer to head the YMCA as another way to promote tolerance. “You have two peoples with real legitimacy in this land,” he says, “and both must recognize it. The zero-sum game has gone on for too long.”

But as any Palestinian or Israeli dedicated to peace knows, retaining this perspective isn’t easy.

Hussein worries that many young Palestinian Israelis have become hardened in their views. “They are educated and worldly, because of the Internet,” he says, “but they have very few opportunities.

“Only when I left Israel was I able to think of my real potential. The intensity of the region pulls you down, while discrimination and inequality make your dreams smaller.”

So it would be easy to be bitter, he admits, about frequent indignities, such as the difficulties Arab villages have getting building permits while nearby Israeli towns expand.

But he refuses to go there. “Bitterness won’t lead us anywhere,” he says adamantly. “You have to think how to decrease the bitterness and ignorance. This is the only way to move forward.

“The psychology of fear is really crippling us. We build walls saying these will be the ultimate protector, but they contribute to hate. Where is the long-term vision? Where is the plan?”

His plan is to keep promoting tolerance, at the YMCA and beyond. Recently he went to Morocco to give a talk, as a Palestinian Arab, on the horrors of the Holocaust. He speaks frequently on the need for understanding “the other.”

In the long term, he hopes to be able to build business relationships between Israelis and Arabs. “That would be my ticket to a greater vision,” he says, “of a new Middle East, interdependent and interconnected.”

If Forsan Hussein won’t give up, how can we?

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her email is trubin@phillynews.com.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 4 months ago

Sadly, Forsan Hussein's line of thinking is too easily eclipsed by those on both sides of this conflict who prefer ethnic division and hatred, and are quick to resort to violence to enforce it.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 4 months ago

I regularly receive emails from FreeMuslims.org, and this is the text of the most recent one, from December 26, 2011:

Free Muslims Organize Historic Conference at Jewish Settlement

This has been a historic month in Israel/Palestine. It began with a successful conference in Jerusalem with a large diverse audience that included Palestinians and Israelis of all backgrounds. There were settlers and Islamists, secularists and ultra-religious and of course Palestinian Christians who took time from the Christmas holidays to join us. Watch the conference.

During the conference, more than 22 people presented plans for resolving the Palestinian Israeli conflict that were rated by the audience and the presenters were given an opportunity to evolve their plans based on the feedback from the audience. The idea is to repeat this process until we find a plan or plans that would be accepted by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians. The Free Muslims believe that when the majority of Israelis and Palestinians genuinely accept a peace plan that they will have the legitimacy to prevent extremists from disrupting peaceful coexistence.

The Free Muslims were then invited to meet the editors of the Jerusalem Post to present one of the plans that was produced from the feedback of Israelis and Palestinians. See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HO-K71....

We have also visited Ibrahim Sarsur, Israeli Arab politician and member of the Knesset for the United Arab List, of which he is the party leader. He invited Kamal Nawash to address his Islamist political party where he asked them to adopt the idea of a shared future for Israel/Palestine where Palestinians and Israelis have legitimate tights in a shared country. Mr. Sarsour was also asked to adopt the methodology that was developed by Free Muslims member Doron Tzur whereby peace plans are developed and evolve based on the feedback from Israelis and Palestinians.

But we did not stop there. We are holding a conference at the Ariel Jewish settlement, which is one of the largest Jewish Settlements in Palestine, also known as Judia and Samaria. Kamal Nawash of the Free Muslims and Igal Cohen-Orgad, Chancellor of the Ariel University are expected to call for equal rights for Palestinians and the removal of the separation wall.

Please support the efforts of the Free Muslims Coalition by donating online or by mail at: http://www.freemuslims.org/support/donate.php.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 4 months ago

1) This is a more detailed description of the conference, all clipped from: http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=251039

Right-wing, Palestinians brainstorm at Ariel parley By OREN KESSLER 12/27/2011 02:11

"Palestinians and settlers are potential allies," Jerusalem-born attorney Kamal Nawash tells ‘Post' after improbable confab.

The Ariel University Center of Samaria was the unlikely setting Monday for an even unlikelier assemblage of participants in the second “Best Plans for a Peaceful Israel/Palestine” conference.

The event featured three Israeli and three Palestinian speakers, each of whom made his case for an alternative formula to the 18-year Oslo peace process that has brought neither a diplomatic nor a security solution to the conflict. The conference was scheduled as a follow-up to last month’s first “Best Plans” conference at east Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel.

Most of the attendees at Monday’s event were students at Ariel University Center (AUC), many wearing skullcaps and most expressing opinions that placed them on the Right. Also in attendance, however, were a smattering of Israeli Arab students at AUC and some two dozen Palestinians who had traveled from the West Bank.

“Some of our visitors were surprised to see we have hundreds of Arab students here from both sides of the Green Line,” said AUC Chancellor Yigal Cohen-Orgad. “We hope to have many more.”

AUC was founded in 1982 as the College of Judea and Samaria, a branch of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

Since then it has grown into Israel’s largest public college, with an enrollment of 14,000 students (by comparison, Ariel’s entire population is 17,000). In 2004 it broke with Bar-Ilan and tried to receive certification as a university, but its initial accreditation by the Council of Higher Education was later overturned and remains an unresolved issue.

AUC has also been a flashpoint of controversy for Israelis opposed to settlements over the pre-1967 Green Line, and early this year close to 150 Israeli academics announced they were boycotting the institution, whose very existence they described as an impediment to peace.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 4 months ago

2) The star of Monday’s event was Kamal Nawash, a Jerusalem-born, New Orleans-raised attorney who founded the organization Free Muslims Coalition in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Based in Washington, the coalition is an anti-extremist organization dedicated to strengthening Muslim voices against terrorism. Much of its recent work, however, has focused not on Islamic extremism per se but on the loaded political issue emanating from the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday, Nawash took the podium sporting a keffiyeh-patterned scarf bearing an emblem of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and an outline of Mandatory Palestine.

“I’m going to put this on because it’s part of my identity,” he told the crowd to scattered applause. “I hope you can feel comfortable with that.”

Nawash then proceeded to outline his peace plan, which forgoes partition in favor of an Israel-Palestine confederation as two provinces within a single state.

Nawash said Israelis and Palestinians need to be honest with one another if they ever hope to achieve peace.

“For many of you, Israel includes not only the lands of 1948, but what you call Judea and Samaria and we call the West Bank,” he said. “For the vast majority of Palestinians, Palestine includes all the lands of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.”

Nawash said he understands Jews have a historical, spiritual and emotional connection to the Land of Israel.

“I can understand you love this place,” he said. “But you have to accept my right to live anywhere in Israel-Palestine just like I accept yours.”

Nawash said his plan is predicated on the free movement of labor and people.

“All settlements stay where they are, and Jews can even build more of them – as long as you buy the land and don’t just take it. Palestinians will be able to do the same,” he said. “Jerusalem becomes no big deal because its the capital of the country. Jews would be able to build anywhere in the city; same with Palestinians.”

Audience reaction was mixed, with some applauding at the idea of unrestricted Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. Others, however, accused Nawash of either deliberate obfuscation or naivete in whitewashing historical Arab hostility to any Jewish presence whatsoever in the Holy Land.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 4 months ago

3) Tsvi Misinai is an Israeli researcher who espouses the controversial view that most Palestinians are actually descendants of Jews from the Second Temple period. Palestinians, he said, should be educated on their own Jewish history and assimilated into the Jewish nation-state.

The remarks were met with derision by the Palestinians in attendance – most of whom had sat impassively for much of the event. One female Israeli Arab student lashed out at Misinai for what she dismissed as baseless conclusions.

At the end of the event a vote was held to select which of the proposals the audience deemed most practicable.

Surprisingly, two plans – those offered by the settlement activist David Ish- Shalom and architect Yosseph Harel Naim – appeared to win a majority of support among both Israelis and Palestinians (voters were asked simply whether the plans were preferable to the status quo or not).

Ish-Shalom – a prominent left-wing activist in the 1970s and ’80s who shifted to the Right after the outbreak of the second intifada – argued for a Jewish state from the Jordan River to Mediterranean Sea in which Arabs professing loyalty would be given citizenship after an unspecified amount of time.

Naim’s plan envisioned a two-state confederation of Israel and Palestine with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

“Most people see us as natural enemies, but I see Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank as potentially the best allies,” Nawash told The Jerusalem Post on the conference sidelines. “We know what settlers want – they want to stay here. The Palestinians want equality and a better life.

“I’m saying to settlers, ‘You love this place? That’s fine, I do, too,” he said. “You fight for my right over all of Israel-Palestine and I’ll fight for yours over all of Palestine-Israel – it’s that simple.”

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 4 months ago

P.S. Obviously, I also receive regular emails from 'The Jerusalem Post'.

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