Four Palestinians are traveling in a car. This is not the beginning of a joke, nor of a security event, but rather a true story that happened last week. On their way to their remote wilderness destination they passed many army checkpoints, and usually when asked about their destination they just mentioned the nearest city. One time, though, they made an exception and told the soldier that they were going to see a group of yeshiva students whom they meet with regularly to build mutual understanding and create an island of inter-communal peace. The soldier’s reaction was not surprising – peals of laughter infected the other soldiers with whom shared this apparent joke.
But it was no joke. Really, this group of the Interfaith Encounter Association has been meeting for several years and brings together yeshiva students with Palestinian youths from a nearby town. Due to the sensitivity of what they are doing, the group usually meets in Jerusalem, but in recent months this was impossible and thus communication between members was limited to exchanging emails and phone calls, in constant search of a way to meet. A way was eventually found, thanks to a special grant which made it possible for them to spend two days together at a faraway guest house. The reunion was sweet after the prolonged separation, attesting to our potential to succeed at largescale coexistence as well.
IEA was established in the summer of 2001 with the understanding that good relations between communities in Israel are a necessary condition for any possibility of peace. Prejudice brings in its wake suspicion, fear and even hatred, which in turn flourishes unchecked in the absence of direct dialogue, making positive relations nearly impossible. Therefore, the only way forward is for Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druse to enter into meaningful dialogue, deep and honest. It was also clear that dialogue which focuses on national narratives, especially with our intention to include participants from across the political spectrum, would not only fail to promote the building of positive relationships, but would be liable to harm them.
Our approach is patterned upon the guidelines set out by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his 1962 essay “Confrontation.” The uniqueness of each community is assumed, no attempts are made at convincing the other. We all share many and varied social needs and can work together for the betterment of society, yet our distinctness remains inviolate. The uniqueness of each community is respected in relation to each community’s theology. We do not blend faiths or communities; instead, we respectfully share our differences and cherish our variety.
In forming the framework for the IEA, we knew from prior experience that conversations which focus on cultural and religious identities of the participants can be a very successful platform. Such conversations invite both religious and secular alike to share from a deep existential place and thus become more intimate and able to forge true connections. In addition, participants discover many similarities between traditions, which comes as a complete and positive surprise to new members.
Perhaps even more importantly, Interfaith Encounter allows, and even encourages, open discussion about the differences between various traditions, and does so in such a way that these differences enrich the conversation instead of causing tension or alienation.
In this way, participants develop the ability to enter into friendly, caring relationships with those with whom they do not agree. Thus, religion is harnessed as a meaningful, powerful force for intercommunal peace. Religion is not in any way, shape or form watered down. Much “interfaith” work around the globe assumes that we must dilute our differences, smoothing over what divides us, and this leaves many participants in such events frustrated, knowing that important points are being suppressed for the sake of a certain superficial “peace.” But there cannot be true peace when people are glossing over what is essential to them. Indeed, the Hebrew word for peace – shalom – is rooted in the concept of “completion.” How can we possibly complete and complement each other if we are suppressing how we differ? It is our very differences that enrich and enlighten, at the same time showing us new vistas, and simultaneously strengthening us in our own diverse paths.
A number of academic studies have investigated the phenomenon of interfaith encounter; all have concluded that participants indeed experience a real transformation which remains stable over time and reflects a profound change in attitude, not only to other members in the group, but also with regard to each other’s broader societies.
Soon enough we realized at IEA that even though it is the first encounter with the “other” that affords the opportunity to dissolve away most prejudices, there is great value in forming ongoing groups which serve as a point of encounter between different communities, become an example of the possibilities of friendly, respectful relations, and constitute catalysts for change in our respective societies through the many participants. So far we have started 73 such groups throughout the Holy Land.
Active participants represent an exceptionally wide spectrum – from ardent supporters of a two-state solution to proponents of a “complete” Israel or Palestine, young and old, students and teachers, and many more. Our vision is the establishment of hundreds or even thousands of groups, of different types and with varying foci, so that everyone in the country will have a group that is close to their heart and their home, so that they can participate easily and enjoy the process.
Events of the past months have tested the stability of our groups. Yet we are seeing that the level of commitment to building relationships between communities, and to the encounters of our groups as a means to this end, has indeed increased; in many cases, the violence going on around us throws into even sharper relief the need to keep working for a peaceful alternative.
Many IEA groups are continuing to hold encounters as planned, and there are even new groups that have sprung up during this period.
Of course, there is no shortage of difficulties – it is harder than usual to get entry permits to Israel for Palestinians, there are all kinds of fears about being able to get to the regular meeting places, and there are locations like Hebron that are not easy for residents to travel out of. But all these things are taken as merely technical difficulties – if anything, they strengthen the resolve to continue meeting with members of the other community.
The two-day retreat mentioned earlier took place in a warm atmosphere of true friends who had not seen each other in a long time and who had genuinely missed each other. Conversation revolved around the topic, selected in advance: The potential contribution of spirituality to one’s broader community. Some of the specific issues that were discussed included the role of the synagogue and the mosque in their respective communities, how to maximize the inclusion of women, and how each individual can personally contribute to the community.
One of the yeshiva students was newly married, and his wife – who joined the retreat – spoke openly and movingly during the conversations as if she was a seasoned attendee of our gatherings, yet this was her first time meeting with Palestinians. The retreat felt like an oasis of human warmth amid a barren desert of fear and violence.
In the concluding session the Palestinian members asked their Jewish friends to spread the word that they had met Palestinians who oppose terror attacks and yearn for peace.
The Jews asked the Palestinians to tell their friends that they had met settlers who do not wish any Palestinian harmed and who also want true peace.
Everyone saw this as a significant contribution to the advancement of the idea that all of us, whatever our identities and affiliations, are all part of one community in this land. I feel honored to share their call with you, and to invite you to be actively involved in building it with them.
The writer can be contacted via the Interfaith Encounter Association website, www.interfaith-encounter.org and Facebook page.