Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Peace begins with the children

“We believe that in order to nurture peace and understanding, we must start very young. We must start with the children.” Amanda Weiss, Director of the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, is very clear about her responsibilities. “We bring the children together to the Museum and give them the opportunity to talk about their shared heritage in Abraham. Unlike some of their parents, they do not see whether their friends are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. All they see is other children and an opportunity for fun. In that way they do not realise that, from their earliest days in school, they are actually listening to each other, sharing and creating a foundation for the future.”

Laughing and excited, a group of about fifty small children of primary school age charged recklessly down a flight of stone steps, happily ignoring adult warnings to take care. Some of the boys wore the skullcap or yarmulke, which identified them as Jews. Of those, a proportion also had the side locks or payot of the Orthodox Jews. As for the others, their religious origins were not immediately identifiable.

As the wriggling horde of young visitors reached the bottom of the staircase, teachers and museum staff divided them into manageable groups. A few minutes later, a little boy of about six gloried in his shining scarlet cloak with its fur trimming. As he adjusted his impossibly high crown, he tried to look regal and commanding but failed. Clustered around the throne, his “subjects” giggled to see their new king and teased him unmercifully. Nearby, wearing white hoods decorated with floppy ears, other children attempted, equally unsuccessfully, to be sheep. History was about to come alive.

“In this museum, we arranged the exhibits chronologically rather than according to their place of origin”, Amanda commented. “This gives us the opportunity to show what was happening at any one time in this part of the world which is so sacred to so many people.” She continued, “The Bible is our history book. The Bible is ours and by ‘ours’, I mean all of the monotheistic faiths, from all directions and all streams - and there are so many that I cannot even count all of them. Even in Judaism, there are numerous streams. We are called the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. We are about the journey of Abraham, the archaeological and historical basis which the lands of the Bible give us.”

Amanda Weiss is the daughter of Elie and Batya Borowksy, the two founders of the Museum. She described the moment when her mother’s inspiration led to its founding in Jerusalem in 1992. Elie, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, planned to house his collection of Near-Eastern antiquities in Toronto. Batya looked at (unknown to her at the time) her future husband. “If your collection is, as you say, the most important collection for the Jewish people and for the Judaeo-Christian heritage, for understanding from where we came and why we are here today, then it belongs here and no place else other than Jerusalem. A place for all faiths to visit must be in Jerusalem.” Batya won the day. The Bible Lands Museum was built in Jerusalem, rather than in Toronto. Today, as its website declares, it “houses one of the world’s most important collections of ancient Near Eastern artefacts, illustrating the world of the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the civilizations of Greece and Rome and the importance of Canaan, Judea and Israel at the cross-roads of the ancient world.”

Amanda continued speaking. “Biblical quotes throughout the Museum help us to orientate ourselves to our history, time and place. We do not just look at the Old Testament. We look at Christianity as well and Coptic Egypt... The intention behind creating this institution was so that it would be a universal institution for people of all faiths to come and to understand the history of the lands of the Bible because the Bible is our history.”

The noisy group of children enjoying their Museum visit was not unusual. “What kept me here was the potential, the power and the capacity of this museum to impact the lives of the people around us. We have educational programming for children from kindergarten through to adult. We have a whole Arab education department, run in Arabic by Arab staff because this is our shared, common heritage. It is not a Jewish story. It is not a Catholic story. It is not a Protestant story and it is not a Muslim story. It is the story of the development of civilisation from a biblical perspective and from a monotheistic vision.”

“We have one amazing project. It has been running for seventeen years non-stop and is called The Image of Abraham. We bring together Arab and Jewish children, their teachers and, in the end, their parents join in too, to learn about our shared common heritage of the journey of Abraham. They create an art project together so that they can take back into their schools something large which they all worked on together as a group project. Every one of these schools gets a project, which they can then put on display to show what they have done together. It is in Arabic in the Arab schools and Hebrew in the Jewish schools. It is a wonderful source for teaching, learning and for understanding.”

How does Amanda, as Director of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem see, not only the role of the Museum, but also her place within it? “It is a passion, but it is also a mission for all of us who work here,” she said. That much was completely obvious. Everything about the Museum spoke of love. Across the world, any Museum worth its salt goes to extraordinary lengths to reach out to its visitors. These days, as anybody would know who has wandered around museums in Britain and elsewhere, children are engaged in interactive events from the moment they hurtle through its entrance. A huge amount of time and effort goes into providing little ones with colourful displays which require buttons to be pushed, handles to be tugged, lids to be lifted and scents to be smelled.

Museums are meant to be exciting places for people of every shape and size. They are intended to provoke thoughts and to ask questions. It is important to know and understand the past in order to make sense of the present. It is difficult, if not impossible, to work towards a hope-filled tomorrow if today is filled with misunderstanding, division and prejudice.

An overriding memory on leaving the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, is the impression of sunshine that has little to do with its architecture and lighting. Some of the parents of the children clustered so happily on the Museum floor would normally have little positive interaction. However, just as in Britain children needing parental help with homework inspired an awareness of, for example, climate change so too, the young visitors to the Bible Lands Museum are building their own tomorrow. They see no reason why tomorrow should not be filled with peace, understanding - and fun! If they can bring their parents to see the value of listening to those of a different background, then it is all the better.

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