Dialogue is the only way

Only candid discussion and inquiry about the religious-national narrative can bring about reconciliation.

October 23, 2006 04:04
4 minute read.
Dialogue is the only way

Arab Jew meeting 298 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

There is no question that the second Lebanon war of the past summer has heightened tensions and lowered the level of trust between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. But has it created an irreparable crisis? And, what is to be done about it? Statements over the summer by Arab MKs in support of Hizbullah's war against Israel and its perceived "victory" have caused many Israeli Jews to question whether Israeli Arabs are really their partners in coexistence in the same society. At the same time, the lack of equal treatment of Arab citizens of Israel in the area of shelters and infrastructure in time of war has caused Israeli Arabs once again to complain about inequality and lack of full shared citizenship in Israeli society. There is a serious problem here and it cannot be swept under the carpet, denied or ignored for much longer, without great harm to the delicate fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs in this country. Yet, it seems that both sides are moving further and further apart, with growing suspicion and hostility capturing the public space. Is there an alternative to the cycle of suspicion and mistrust, leading to alienation and withdrawal of each community from the other? I believe that despite all that has happened - and even because of the events of the past summer - now is the time for serious, sustained and sensitive dialogue between Jews and Arabs in Israel. For the past four years, in a rather quiet and unassuming way, grass-roots religious leaders - including rabbis, kadis, sheikhs, imams, priests and ministers - have been engaged in intensive and difficult dialogue with each other in a program called "Kedem" ("Kol Dati Mefayeis - Voices of Religious Reconciliation"). This dialogue, which has taken place in towns and villages throughout Israel and in summer seminars in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Cyprus, has faced many obstacles and seemingly impossible gaps of understanding. But the religious leaders in this dialogue have persevered, even to this day. Rather than submit to despair and to continuing mistrust and misunderstanding, these leaders have taken a bold decision in recent weeks to continue the dialogue, to continue to encounter the Divine Image in the Other through open and candid discussion and inquiry, and to continue to listen carefully to the religious-national narrative of the Other, even if what each side hears is often extremely painful and jarring. THIS IS a very daring, complex and challenging process. It is much easier to remain within the confines of one's own community and deny and reject the Other, based on what one reads in the newspapers or sees on one's television screen almost every day. But rabbis of towns and yeshivot and communities have decided to continue their dialogue with their Israeli Arab counterparts in a sincere and sustained effort to understand deeply and genuinely what Israeli Arab religious leaders are thinking these days. At the same time, the Arab religious leaders have called upon their Jewish colleagues to listen to their stories of the war this summer, just as they want to hear and understand what happened to the rabbis and their communities. Recently, I was a facilitator to a discussion between one of the leading rabbis in Kedem and one of the leading Israeli Muslim religious leaders. The rabbi began by saying to his colleague, with whom he has been in deep dialogue for the past four years: "I am really very, very interested in knowing what Israeli Arabs are thinking after the war, whether they are really supporting [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, and whether they understand what has happened to the attitudes of Israeli Jews to Israeli Arabs as a result of this war." The response was one that took the rabbi by surprise. It offered an analysis of the war and an explanation of the Israeli Arab viewpoint - both very different from what one reads in the daily press in Israel. This led to an intense discussion with intense disagreement and equally intense listening. The conclusion? Both agreed to arrange a meeting following the Jewish and Muslim holidays to continue the dialogue in order to deepen their mutual understanding and enable them to continue to work together. These are very difficult times for Israeli society as a whole, and for Arabs and Jews in this country in particular. The vast majority of people remain, unfortunately, in their own corners and their own communities, with very little contact and very few efforts to understand "the other side." But, fortunately, there are a growing number of people, who are forward-looking and thoughtful enough to chart another course, to pave the path of dialogue between Arabs and Jews who share citizenship in this country. There is indeed an alternative to endless war and perpetual animosity. So far, only a few people have taken this path. My hope is that more will choose to do so, for the benefit of all of Israel's citizens, Arabs and Jews, before it is too late. The writer, a rabbi, serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) and as co-director of Kedem.

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