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Date: 5/5/2005 8:50:21 PM ( 14 y ) ... viewed 1637 times
Jew, Muslim travel with spiritual message
Two devout men talk of harmony in the Middle East
Chronicle Staff Writer
They greet each other with an extended hug, firm pats on the back and kisses on the cheek. They are dear friends, even though many of their countrymen are dire enemies.
Eliyahu McLean is 33, lives in West Jerusalem and is an Orthodox Jew, with a beard, long side curls and often a tefillin, a small black box filled with parchment from the Torah.
Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa, 60, is a devout Palestinian Muslim who lives on the Mount of Olives, the Arab sector of the holy city, and wears traditional white robes, an embroidered skullcap and pale yellow prayer shawl.
Together they travel the world to share the story of their friendship, and are in the Bay Area to give a series of talks spreading the message that it is possible for Jews and Palestinians to live harmoniously in the Holy Land.
"I just see how much we love each other, and it makes me sad that others can't share that on a broader level," said McLean, now director of the Middle East Chapter of the Peacemaker Community -an international spiritual group that focuses on reconciliation efforts.
This trip is a homecoming for McLean, who was born in Santa Rosa to a Jewish mother from Queens and a father who taught comparative religion and descended from a long line of Protestant preachers.
The family moved to Oahu when McLean was young, and his parents raised him and his four siblings in Sant Mat, a mystical branch of Sikhism. He later embraced Judaism after attending a friend's bar mitzvah.
But, as a student at UC Berkeley, McLean majored in Middle East studies, and a class on Palestine heightened his interest in Islam. He moved to Egypt, learned Arabic and became a practicing Muslim.
Years later, he turned his attention back to Judaism, moved to Jerusalem in 1997 and became an Israeli citizen.
"I'm definitely a 'linker,' " McLean said before an appearance at a synagogue in Los Altos. "Because of my background, I can connect with and understand people on many different levels."
He met Abu El-Hawa through various interfaith peace events in Jerusalem years ago, but it wasn't until the latest wave of violence began that they decided to join forces.
"I happened to see Ibrahim on the main market street, and he was so broken by the violence that when he saw me, he just broke into tears and gave me a big hug," said McLean, who was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt under his oxford shirt and a rainbow-color kippah or skullcap with a dove woven on top. "I also cried, and from that moment forward, there was an unspoken vow to each other that we would work in partnership to work for peace and harmony."
They have spoken to the British House of Lords, they have met Israeli and Palestinian officials and they have met with radicals and militants on both sides in their efforts to promote peace.
Both have lost close friends in shootings and suicide attacks, and both routinely run into skeptics who criticize their position.
Tamar Weber, for example, was born in Tel Aviv and remained unconvinced that prayers and compassion would be enough to end the tumult in her homeland after listening to them speak Monday night at a Los Gatos synagogue.
"They're beautiful stories, but it all comes from a spiritual place and being a politically oriented, nonreligious person, I've been taught to look at all the elements and players," said the 21-year-old New York University student who was visiting her parents on a summer break. "I can appreciate what they are saying, but at the end of the day, it's not enough."
But McLean and Abu El-Hawa insist that hope and prayer are the antidotes for the widespread despair permeating the Middle East.
"I'm not trying to ignore it or be naive, but I'm saying let's heal it at its source," McLean said, emphasizing that consciousness needs to be raised on both sides.
"The similarities on a deeper spiritual level surpass the political differences they may have about claim to territory," McLean said. "The problem is that Western and political negotiating techniques leave out the spiritual dimension."
McLean and Abu El-Hawa have changed the minds of critics on both sides at their weekly prayer vigils held at a tourist outlook along the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Even Israeli soldiers have stopped by to say they hope that the group's prayers for peace are answered soon, McLean said.
Abu El-Hawa blames the politicians for the predicament and said he gets along with everyone he meets, regardless of their ethnicity or background.
His appreciation for diversity came early in life, when he would take tourists up the hill to the Mount of Olives and invite them back to his home for coffee, tea and conversation.
He still lives in that home and still invites everyone he meets to come and visit -and hundreds have. Two years ago, he retired from his longtime job as an engineer at the Israeli telephone company to dedicate himself full time to traveling and sharing the message of peace.
Abu El-Hawa said he learned to appreciate those with different beliefs by example -his father worked for more than 50 years as a guard at a Russian Orthodox church and his mother adopted and cared for seven children -three of whom were deaf and blind, adopted from her brother's family.
"My mother, she taught us love," he said. "It was a beautiful story to learn."
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle -- Saturday, July 27, 2002
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