Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is now being encouraged by Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the president of Egypt. He sent his foreign minister to Jerusalem on Sunday, July 10, and the minister had two meetings with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A week earlier, the Egyptian minister met in Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
Accepted by both sides, the Egyptians are certainly in a good position to strengthen the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. But having just returned from 10 days of visits to archaeological sites in Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, I'm convinced that the path to peace can be found closer to home: In the Galilee region of Northern Israel.
Galilee is where Jesus conducted most of his ministry, and it is where biblical history came alive for me when I took part in the excavation of an ancient Jewish community in 1980. But the history of Galilee since the time of Jesus is instructive for those who are anxious for peace in the Middle East.
A few miles from Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, is a Galilean city called Sepphoris. When Jews revolted against Rome around the year 70, Sepphoris chose to remain loyal to Rome and not participate in the revolt. As a result, it was given the name "City of Peace." Eric Meyers, a Duke archaeologist who led excavations there in the 1980s, says that the pro-Roman and peaceful stance of Sepphoris enabled it to "develop as a major center of learning for centuries to come." Romans and Jews lived side-by-side in a place that became an important site of Jewish religious and cultural life.
In Israel today, much political conflict arises from cultures and religions that refuse to live peacefully together. Jews claim the West Bank for themselves and build settlements; Palestinians respond with knife, gun and vehicular attacks. But Sepphoris proves that antagonistic groups can live together in Israel, even when both assert a claim to the land. There could be no more different religious and cultural groups than Jews and Romans, but they found a way to intermingle and enrich each other in Sepphoris.
Modern Galilee has enjoyed times of peace as well. For years, the city of Nazareth was 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christians, and the two groups cooperated. Tourism was a booming business, attracting those who wanted to visit the hometown of Jesus. But in late 2015, Israel's domestic intelligence agency arrested five residents of Nazareth who allegedly declared their allegiance to ISIS. Nazareth's Christians now worry that they are seen as the "infidels" on the ISIS hit list.
Many of Nazareth's Christians are loyal to Israel because of the protection it offers minority religions, but they worry about the rise of extremism on the Jewish side of the equation. Last summer, Jewish extremists firebombed the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, near the Sea of Galilee. This is believed to be the site of the miracle in which Jesus fed thousands with just five loaves of bread and two fish. The vandals wrote on the church walls, "The false gods will be eliminated."
Jews, Christians and Muslims will all suffer unless they can find a way to build cities of peace throughout Israel and the West Bank. If Jews and Romans could do it in Sepphoris, and Muslims and Christians could do it (until recently) in Nazareth, then the people of Galilee might be able to lead the way again. When Jesus originally appeared on the scene, a man asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). Well, yes, I think it can.
The history of Galilee teaches that economic cooperation is more important than cultural purity, and that aggression by religious extremists does damage to people of all faiths. That's a lesson that Israelis and Palestinians need to learn, now more than ever.