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Twenty Israeli and Palestinian religious teachers will begin a weeklong joint workshop Sunday in Tel Hai, where they will discuss conflict resolution and the role of religion in the Middle East.
The workshops, which have been held for the past few years in Turkey, had previously been kept quiet, out of concern that undue publicity might lead participants to withdraw.
The program was started at Bar-Ilan University, and was then expanded to include a group at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. After a European grant that funded the Ben-Gurion branch from 2005 to 2008 expired, the Ma'agalei Da'at - "circles of knowledge" - project had been receiving private funding. But now that, too, has dried up, forcing the groups to move the joint workshop to Israel this year.
"Money has run out, the economic recession hit, Madoff is in prison, and now our workshop is being held in Israel, which we tend not to do because [the city] is not considered neutral ground," David Newman, founder of the Ben-Gurion branch of the project and professor of politics and government at the university, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The teachers meet once every two weeks in their respective locations for a four-hour learning session, and once a year the Israelis and Palestinians come together for the joint workshop. There is also a graduate course.
The name of the project was originally New Constituents for Peace, but the term "peace" upset participants. According to Newman, they felt as if the project was either a "left-wing conspiracy" or "political propaganda." So the name was changed to Ma'agalei Da'at.
Recruitment for the group began during the Israeli evacuation of Gaza in 2005, which made finding willing participants difficult, Newman said.
Political issues continued to occur and "cause problems" for open dialogue, Newman said, mentioning that the first joint workshop took place during the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
"All too often religion is only associated with extreme views," Newman told the Post. "We believe that religious groups on both sides have a need to understand each other, where they are coming from, and to encounter each others' narratives."
Participation in the project is not meant to sway Israelis or Palestinians to a specific political view, but rather increase awareness and understanding, Newman said. Once the initial ice is broken during the joint meetings, group members find they have "a great deal in common, even if their political views are divergent," he added.
However, many of the participating teachers face criticism at home for their involvement in the program, according to Yohanan Tzoreff, the head of both workshop programs and an expert in Palestinian affairs. He previously served as an Arab affairs adviser in the Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s.
But despite this struggle, they continue to attend the workshops. The religious teachers continue to learn about "the other side," Tzoreff said, and then bring the information they have gained to their students.
"We work with people that are educators who can talk to their pupils in an open way, and show them everything that can be relevant to their knowledge," he said. "We are trying to make a mix between the Jewish Halacha and the issues that are based on the Arab and Islamic world."