Walking in the steps of Abraham: the ‘third way’ in the Middle East

Photo by nour tayeh on Unsplash

Two items about the conflict in Israel drew my attention this morning. In the Times of Israel, blogger Meredith Rothbart made the point that peacebuilding is a long-term endeavour. She quoted her mentor, Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, who is known for his role in helping make peace in Northern Ireland: “If you want peace today, you should have started building it 20 years ago. And if you don’t feel like working for peace today, then you better not complain to me in 20 years that the conflict is ongoing and affecting your children.”

She has been working on relationship-building among Israelis and Palestinians for a decade, but this time, instead of having people tell her she’s wasting her time, she is hearing more from people who want to know how they can help. And she has advice:

“Peacebuilding is not a hashtag, a picket sign, or a WhatsApp group. Peacebuilding is not a dialogue circle, talking about our feelings and hoping that this will prepare our societies for some magical future political agreement. Peacebuilding is taking concrete actions to make lives and the daily reality for Israelis and Palestinians better today, defined by a) less hatred, tension, and violence, b) increased quality of life, and c) improved systems for interaction.”

And, citing how people in Ireland made peace, she urges people to develop initiatives to support peace.

Coincidentally, The World had a report on the Abraham Initiatives, which is one of those long-term peacebuilding initiatives. It was created in 1989 by philanthropist Alan B. Slifka and civil rights activist Rabbi Eugene Weiner to fund grassroots coexistence work in Israel. It has , “evolved into a shared society organization that models solutions to enact equal and positive Jewish-Arab relations in Israel”, advocating for policy change in economic development, education, policing and equal representation.

In turn, that reminded me of the equally visionary Abraham Path initiative, a walking path and cultural route in the Middle East which evokes the story of Ibrahim/Abraham, spiritual ancestor of more than half of humankind, and his respect for the traditions of hospitality and kindness to strangers. The well-known mediator William Ury, author of “Getting to Yes”,  co-founded the group back in 2006 – and of course, it began with a walk.

“In 2006, an eclectic group of 25 people from around the world embarked on a trip from Urfa to Hebron, following the epic journey of the world’s first pilgrim, Abraham,” he says. “They included academics, writers, trekking professionals, cultural tourism experts, and leaders from civil society groups in the Middle East, religious circles and the business community.”

As they traversed 625 miles, they talked to a wide range of people, communities and local leaders about the radical idea of developing the first long-distance walking trail across the region. It would connect the world to the Middle East through the combined power of “walk, story, and hospitality”, he said. That would create connections, allow for the sharing of stories, and also bring economic opportunities to small rural communities that often found themselves outside the economic mainstream.

This was such a powerful idea that it has attracted widespread media attention over the years.

In 2019, Canadian Marlene Friesen wrote an article for the Vancouver Sun about her experience of walking the Abraham Path.

She was attracted by the vision. “The story of Abraham is a common identity that is shared by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Its history dates back 4,000 years to a man and his family who walked across the Middle East with a message of unity and connectedness, and whose values were kindness and respect for all people, and showing hospitality to strangers.”

But when friends heard about her plans, they often asked: ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ She replied that Ury’s vision was to help change how the world saw Palestine – from hostility to hospitality, and terrorism to tourism, quoting his maxim that “The opposite of terrorism is to take in innocent strangers and treat them as friends, to welcome them into your home and to show and create an understanding of respect and love.” 

She said that was what they experienced. “At every organized homestay and guesthouse, or in rustic Bedouin camps, we were welcomed as family. We laughed, we talked, we played games, we heard stories about occupation and injustice, and we heard the pleas and prayers for peace. Over tea and coffee and fabulous food we were asked to go back to our homes and share their stories. By offering their delicious food, heaps of it, they showed how much they appreciated our company, our presence and our willingness to engage.”

Ury suggests in a wonderful TED talk in 2010 that the secret to resolving some of our most difficult conflicts is ‘us’. We are the third side, he says, and we can remind the parties in conflict of what is at stake if a conflict continues. He explained that the idea of the Abraham Path came from his ponderings about what was the ‘third side’ in the Middle East conflict. And he concluded that it was Abraham and his famous journey across the region, and that the way to evoke it was by emulating him – by walkin.

But the Abraham Path is about more than achieving cultural understanding, he says. It is an economic initiative as well, one which brings income to people in remote villages where there is no other source. It brings people together, and weaves an economic fabric where there has been none. And, by doing so, it offers new ways for people to build economies and relationships – it creates a ‘third way’ for peace.

And it’s not limited just to the Middle East, he said.

“…people started to organize walks in cities, in their own communities. In Cincinnati, for instance, they organized a walk from a church to a mosque to a synagogue and all had an Abrahamic meal together. It was Abraham Path Day. In São Paulo, Brazil, it’s become an annual event for thousands of people to run in a virtual Abraham Path Run, uniting the different communities…… And just a couple weeks ago, there was an NPR story on it. Last month, there was a piece in the Manchester Guardian about it, two whole pages. And they quoted a villager who said, “This walk connects us to the world.” He said, “It was like a light that went on in our lives — it brought us hope.””