In the fall of 2019, during a Feminenza discovery mission to the Middle East, we had the privilege to be hosted by the Mar Elias School, and an opportunity to meet Archbishop Elias Chacour, endearingly called “Abuna”– our father, by everyone around him, in the ancient village of I’billin in the Galilee, a home for Muslims and Christians.
The Mar Elias School is named after the prophet Elias – Elijah. Established by Father Chacour in the early 1980s, it now educates more than 3500 children from diverse backgrounds and religions, (Christians, Muslim, Druze), from pre-school – kindergarten through high school.
As part of its curriculum, the school offers a unique Forgiveness study program to senior grades, with a great hope that the seeds of Forgiveness and Reconciliation the young minds are exposed to, will take root and be carried through to their family, homes, communities, and affect the future of the region and perhaps the whole world; after all, the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.
In the words of Abuna – the bright-eyed 80-year-old Archbishop, “We are all born babies, no one is born hating another” but we are all taught by our families, tribes, communities, and society what and whom we should hate. It goes so far back to the past that no one even remembers why we should hate them, and the new generation of innocent babies born today continues to fall prey to the same ancestral thinking… And then the fight goes on…
PART I – WE ARE ALL BORN BABIES
Feminenza and Abuna share a hopeful vision of a different future, possible to achieve through the ripple effect of educating the young and propagating the seeds of update and upgrade in human society.
Father Elias – …I think we have something in common that no one can deny, we all were born babies, and all in the image of God. This is our identity, our Allah, our dignity, and our life. And we discover our original identity that we were born babies and discover that we are brothers and sisters, and I am very honored to have you here.
Mary – I read both your books, ‘Blood Brothers’ and ‘We belong to the Land’, and I was touched, very deeply touched… And I really wanted to meet this “other man from Galilee”. I was touched by your story, how as a young boy you would walk the hills and you would talk to your Compatriot.
Father Elias – My Champion (see note).
Mary – Your Champion, exactly. And I wonder whether even today if that’s still something that motivates you.
Father Elias – It’s even much more…with the very complicated situation we have here, concerning Jews and Arabs, and we are really very much concentrated on teaching our boys and girls to keep the hope alive. To keep the hope and to keep their ideal for justice that comprises forgiveness and reconciliation. This is our main – almost obsession. And I’m very happy to see the reaction of the children. Here we have 3500 students. I don’t hide from you that the school was meant first to be a Christian school. … the Sermon on the Mount, I hope you have some idea about that. And I asked myself seriously if you are really for Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount, how can you make a school, a Christian school closed in itself? I need it to open up in order that our deeds will explain our faith. And I opened the door for Muslim boys and girls. And they started coming.
Now today at this moment there are 3500. You don’t see them; you don’t hear them. They are working. 65 percent of them are Muslim boys and girls. Very beautiful people. Very nice, I love them with all my affection. Boys and girls surely. And then in the year ‘98 I said, “That’s fine what you have achieved, but we are still missing someone. We should go and find some Jews to come and be with us”. We hired Jewish teachers; and I sent my assistants and I went with them to every Jewish village and kibbutz in the neighborhood and met with the parents’ committee and asked them if they could send us some of their children to the school. I promised them “I will not treat your children better than ours, but in no way, they will be treated less than the others”. And I was able to convince 82 Jewish families to send their children.
Imagine in the year 2000, I opened the school like I do every day now. I go in front of the elementary school. I greet every child. “How are you? Did you sleep well? How are your parents? You are happy that you came back? Are you happy?” Only that… and he goes “I am very happy”, and I am happier.
That day I came… all the Jewish children… we have my children, Christians, and Muslims, and a huge bus was coming down, it was the Jewish children. I got very scared. Did I bring the devil into my camp? How can I subdivide these Jews into 4 or 5 persons in each classroom, with 30 Palestinians who mostly are people from destroyed villages, or have their land confiscated, or they live in very, very, very primitive situations because of deprivation, and they are all angry? How can I allow 4 Jews to live with 30 Palestinians? They might kill them; they might cut them into pieces…
The bus arrived, I said, “Don’t move, stay in the bus please”. I ordered 4 buses empty. They came. I loaded these 4 buses with my children. The Christians and the Muslims. And I looked at the Jewish bus, (sorry to say that) …. I asked myself, “Boy, can you love these people now as you love your other children?” I did not give an answer. I just jumped into the bus. I greeted them. I said, “You will subdivide yourselves into 4 groups. And you will go into the buses. You will spend the day on Mount Carmel in the fresh air. When you come back, we will see what we can do”. They went with the teachers… sure the teachers were very alarmed and alert about the situation. They came back at 4 o’clock. I was there to count how many were hurting, were insulted, were ill-treated. The buses stopped; the doors opened…. No one of the children went out on the steps of the door. They all jumped out like little monkeys… It was very, very clear, I can swear, they have forgotten that they were Jews and Arabs. They have discovered that they were just kids. Oh, bless these just kids.
We had a great year in the ninth grade, but in the tenth grade, problems started. The Jews were supposed to go two days a month for pre–military training. And the first lesson they said they received, as they said to me, was that they will have the privilege of becoming soldiers when they finish high school. Why? in order to defend their country against terrorists surrounding them… And who were the terrorists? The Palestinians, so I am a terrorist.
The children would come the next morning, living with 3500 children, all Palestinians, and they would look, where are the terrorists? And then 11th grade became even more difficult. They were supposed to go for proper military training, GADNA – and in the 12th grade it became impossible, so we stopped having Jewish children. We kept our Jewish teachers. And we tried to substitute that by creating a relationship with Jewish schools to exchange students and to receive them and to send our students there, and we have a few other Jewish schools who are in connection with us.
We are dreaming to have this mutual relation with Jews and Palestinians. Because if you place one Jew here, one Muslim there, one Christian here, one Druze there, they will learn a few things, they will discover a few things together. They will stumble against the same problems together. Then you can have them sit down together and drive the common future you want for all of you. They will do a miracle. Unfortunately, no… education is still segregated in Israel. And I’m fighting to have an integrated system of schools. I know that at the end we will have it. We will not live in a neighborhood ignoring each other. We will live together in a neighborhood.
So, that is the school. In fact it’s a dream, it’s a vision that I was given by the villagers here, because we were organizing summer camps for the kids. The first summer camp was supposed to be with a minimum number of children, 500 children.
I am convinced that we are condemned to this between the Jews and the Palestinians – either we shall die together, God forbid, or we shall live together. And I want to survive. I don’t want the Jew to be killed and I don’t want to be killed either. And that requires a lot of work and a lot of education. But it is not impossible. It has been always possible in the past. The Jews have suffered, we were known as the Palestinian Jews. When I go there to buy some fish, in that street where the fish is in Tiberius, they all call “Abuna, come and buy from me”, exactly like our Arabs…
Father Elias – Let’s go to Feminenza, it’s much more important. Tell me what you do?
Mary – I can tell you a few things. We started about 20 years ago, from the standpoint of looking at the development and the inner empowerment of women. Very quickly we found ourselves working in Kenya, where we met organizations, NGOs, men and women that were working for the benefit of their communities, working for the young girls and so on. And the theme of forgiveness began to become a very important issue for me at the time. Because it seemed to be at the root of everybody’s problems.
So it became a very profound study and research for me. It wouldn’t let me go. And I think for about 2 years I was having every argument in myself about forgiveness. I would have this internal argument in my head over and over and over again, and I had to work it through until I got to a place in myself where I realized that this was bigger than me, this was more important than my wounds, my hurts, my likes, my dislikes. That this was something the world needed, that humanity needed. And that you have to basically be the bigger person, again and again and again and again. So, from that moment, we started to develop this training programme and we ended up producing something called the Seven Pillars of Forgiveness.
One of the things in the forgiveness work that we do is we try to help people challenge the stereotypes. The “us and them” and learn how do you re-humanize the enemy and all of those really important issues.
Father Elias – What does all that have to do with women?
Mary – It’s not just about women. It’s about humanity. It is about forgiveness, it is about reconciliation, it’s also about how the two genders can reconcile and forgive.
Father Elias – Normally, is it okay if I speak as a Christian? Our main responsibility, all the (days of our) life, is to forgive. You need to forgive our enemies, seven times, seventy times, that’s immense, it’s really the whole damn life. But we don’t do that, do we?
Mary – No, no, exactly, so that’s how we ended up coming back to here. Because now Mar Elias (the school) is one of our partners for this next application with the EU for the Trauma Healing.
I am amazed by what has been achieved here. I’m sure you’ve heard that many times, but from the story of when you arrived here as a young priest with nothing here.
Father Elias – I came with a car. I lived literally six months in the car. Well it’s very nice what you said. I am very amazed. I congratulate you for what you do. I’ll pray for you also. Here I did not plan anything. It’s not a passive vision, that came on me, that I have to make a high school for the children. And we started in 1982, with a building for which we were unable to get the building permit, …. so I started without a building permit…que sera, sera. Now everything is ok. We started and this is very significant for you, with 4 teachers. 3 men and one lady. Now in the elementary school here, we have 86 teachers. Three men and all the rest are ladies. In the high school, with 80 teachers, we have 7 men and all the rest are ladies. That shows you an evolution and development. It’s amazing. That’s why, with these ladies who are differently minded than the men, who are inclined to be tough, to be violent, these ladies can be more peaceful I think.
Edna – Do you still have Jewish teachers?
Father Elias – Oh yes, oh yes. We love them affectionately you know. They are very dear to us.
Mary – What is the situation now? I know there was, for example, a vision to have a university that didn’t quite…
Father Elias – Oh God. Well we spent two years fighting with the higher educational committee in Israel. In one year we exchanged 64 letters. All the letters we received were letters of criticism – things are lacking, criticizing – and we answered that innocently, although we saw the contradiction, we answered innocently. After that we got back an invitation. But we needed the approbation of the Israeli government and the last session of the government of Olmert was on the situation of the Mar Elias Education institution and University. And they ended by approving it. But! There was a simple quote at the end. “This academic institution will never have any subsidy from the state of Israel.” It’s like saying you might have a child if you want, but you will not be allowed to breathe. So we did not go further.
So here we have an elementary school, kindergarten elementary school, high school, and our teachers are all young. They still make children. And they were very confused how to deal with their children. In the morning they needed some babysitter and that’s not easy in our Arab society. If grandma is not ready, it’s complicated. And in the evening they should go very, very fast to Nazareth, to Acre to Haifa, to take their children back where they are. So we decided to open a nursery for them ….and we are the floor on top of where you can go and see thirty kids. They’re the most beautiful children, this is the most beautiful initiative we have taken. And in the past year we thought we need to extend to the wider community. We opened a learning center for extra curriculum activities. People from the wider community. And they come from Tamra, from Shefaram, from Iblin, from Kabul, from everywhere and they take courses in different topics. So we are trying almost to invent what we can do.
Mary – That’s for adults, the learning center?
Father Elias – Yes. We don’t have any plan that we follow to.
Edna – Just respond to their need.
Father Elias – Absolutely. My last book was called ‘A Vision, not a Road map’.
Mary – So… What is your vision now?
Father Elias – I don’t know. It’s very complicated, in this country, I think. We still do not manage to get together. And all I’m trying to do now with the children, I speak to them twice a week, to all of them, is to keep them with the hope alive. To keep them protecting their dignity and understanding their dignity can never be protected without accepting to protect the dignity of the other. This is a big job, and in the past few years, we have a kind of mounting wave of violence in the Arab society. Almost every year – in the past month we had three or four persons were killed. Firearms. And we are very worried about that. We need also to speak to our children about it. Lucky enough the whole year passed last year without any act of violence among the children. They know where they are. They know what’s required from them. They are very respected, very loved. And when someone does something not good, we manage to educate him, not to punish him.
So we don’t know what the future will be, but I think we can be almost sure that the future will be what we want it to be, and the most important factor in forming the future is not weapons, it’s not might, it’s education. It’s very clear, the first month of the school year, every year we have a special problem, where children come from entirely Muslim villages. Others come from entirely Christian villages, Iliya, Assuta, Jish, and these are so full of prejudice against the other. A Christian hates the Muslim. And a Muslim hates the Christian because he says these are the new Crusaders, you are the Crusaders, we hate the Crusaders.
So we have to teach them something without mentioning their fears. So what I propose to the teachers, and what I’m doing is to try to convince them that the ‘unknown other’ is a potential friend, is not a potential enemy. And you have to discover his friendship, rather than to be careful from his enmity. And that works for young people. Wherever I go now, in a hospital, in a business, in accountancy, I find alumni from the school. I was in the hospital in Haifa, in the Rambam Hospital, for a surgery. And then I woke up in the operation arena, I was surrounded by eleven doctors. Nine of them graduated from the school. That’s what gives me hope. That’s the hope we have for the future. I think we are born to be together! We are struggling how to be together and we don’t succeed.
Esther – We met two of the teachers last time we were here, and I’ll never forget the passion and the brightness and the articulation that was there. It was amazing.
Father Elias – I think the main problem today without going to theology or philosophy, is that the Jews authority claims that the land belongs to the Jews. And the Palestinians claim the land belongs to us. Each one is saying the land belong to me. If I may say my opinion, I am convinced the land cannot belong to the Jews. And it cannot belong to the Palestinians. Both Jews and Palestinians have the important responsibility to learn how to belong to the land. Call it Palestine. Call it Israel. Call it whatever you want. But the land is God’s, as Isaiah says in chapter five.
Mary –What keeps you going?
Father Elias – Faith surely, but also faith in the young people. They are today’s society. They will be our hope for tomorrow. And it all depends what we put in their mind and their spirits, whether to go fight for an illusionary right or to go discover new values where they did not think they existed. And that concerns the Jews and the Palestinians.
Note – ‘In Elias Chacour’s books he often refers to the days when he would walk the mountains nearby, seeking to be joined, connected, guided by a greater hand. He would draw to himself the images, sentiments and feelings present when Jesus Christ – his champion, compatriot and companion – delivered the Beatitudes in what later came to be known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’