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.
He was 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 said, “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 said, “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 said, “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 said 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 said, “of a new Middle East, interdependent and interconnected.”
If Forsan Hussein won’t give up, how can we?