A few days before I was to leave for Jerusalem last July, two suicide bombers blew themselves up on streetcorners in the city. My brother, who had lived in the Middle East for nine years, urged me to cancel my trip. But I felt compelled to go. I had been invited to deliver a paper at an extraordinary conference of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars, gathering to discuss land and peace in the most volatile city in the world.
The cast of characters that awaited me seemed larger than life. Perhaps this was my reward, I thought. There was Vincent Cornell of the University of Arkansas, erstwhile Episcopalian and now distinguished (believing) Islamic scholar, telling a Muslim Palestinian leader that he was "doing violence to history" by claiming that neither Jewish temple had been on the Temple Mount. At another point Cornell remarked, "Muhammad said the two most important things in life are religion and reason. The problem with Islam today is that it has too much religion and not enough reason."
Then there was Abdelsalam Mennasrah, a Sufi sheikh1 from Nazareth, who joined ten of us exploring the tunnels under the area surrounding the Temple Mount (and the Dome of the Rock). It was there, in 1996, that eight Israeli soldiers and 26 Muslims died in a riot sparked by Muslim fears that the Jewish tunnels sought to collapse the Mount from below so that a new temple could be built on its ruins. When we came to the end of the tunnels, which clearly followed the outside of the subterranean walls supporting the Mount, the sheikh announced gravely, "Now I see that we were told a lie, and that 26 of my brothers, as well as eight Israeli soldiers, died in vain."
One of the most colorful characters was Ed Sheldon, an American clinical psychologist who is also an Orthodox rabbi and Israeli citizen. Rabbi Sheldon moved with his wife and two small children from the United States to a settlement two years ago because he felt Israel is "the place of my people, my history, my heart, and ...