They are Muslim, Christian and Jewish. But the three women say their religious differences are less important than what they have in common. All are mothers of three children. And all are lovers of the city they each call home: Jerusalem.
At a time when the hope of sharing the Holy Land’s spiritual capital seems as far-fetched as stopping hardliners from battering the Arab-Israeli peace process, Claudette Habesch, Michal Shohat and Nahla Asali are on a 10-city U.S. tour to spread a different message.
Jerusalem is a home of many rooms, they said during an interview this week in Washington. And its future rests on the mutual recognition and respect of all its residents, whatever their religious or political allegiances. Their “humble effort,” as Asali put it, is meant to keep alive the faltering vision of a Jerusalem shared by all who live there.
“It’s a very important issue for the two peoples and the three religions,” said Habesch, a 57-year-old Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and is Roman Catholic. “The sooner we find a solution to the problem, the better off we will all be.”
Shohat, a 44-year-old Jew who serves on Jerusalem’s elected municipal council and belongs to the left-wing Meretz Party, and Asali, a 58-year-old Palestinian Muslim born in Jerusalem who teaches English at Birzeit University in the West Bank, agree.
Jerusalem “is a religious city. Not only for the Jews, of course,” said Shohat, who was born on a kibbutz and has lived in Jerusalem 30 years.
The three women live only a five-minute drive from each other in different parts of the city. But they met only about two weeks ago after they accepted invitations from Partners for Peace to speak to audiences in the United States. The group, which disseminates information about the Arab-Israeli conflict, is sponsoring their tour.
The women’s message on Jerusalem puts them at odds with the official position of the Israeli government, which asserts political sovereignty over the entire city and claims it as Israel’s “eternal capital.”
But most Palestinians say Jerusalem must be shared, and they regard its eastern half, which Israel captured and occupied in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, as the capital of a future Palestinian state. A minority of Palestinian hard-liners want all of Jerusalem under Arab control.
Recognizing the difficulty of reconciling these conflicting claims on the city, both sides agreed in 1993, under the Oslo peace accords, to postpone the issue of Jerusalem’s future until the last stage of negotiations. But under the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, those talks have lapsed with no resumption in sight.
The women’s approach to resolving Jerusalem’s status emphasizes the city’s importance to the three major faiths and conflicts with Israeli and Palestinian officials who tend to emphasize the political struggle.
The Israeli government seeks to keep the religious and political aspects separate by stressing that its political sovereignty over the city guarantees open access to worshipers of all three religions, particularly those who want to visit holy sites in the heart of Jerusalem - the ancient, walled Old City.
“Jerusalem for the Arabs, for the Muslims, for the Christians and I would say also for the Jews is a very important city,” Asali said. “We have our spiritual attachments to holy places” within the city.
But Shohat, whose daughter, Hen, 20, is accompanying her on the tour, said Israeli government claims that Jerusalem is a united city under its rule seem false because the city is so riven by political and religious tensions.
Their hope for peace in the city they love, the women said, stems from their love for their children.
“We all have children, and we want them to live in peace,” Asali said. For her, that means “a future that is clear and with values like ‘Live and let live.”’
xxxx ITINERARY The three women will speak in Minneapolis, Seattle, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Roanoke, Va., and Princeton, N.J.