Clergymen find bond at law school

College in Kiryat Ono brings together diverse spiritual leaders.

Ono College program (photo credit: Courtesy )
Ono College program
(photo credit: Courtesy )
What do a Melkite Catholic priest, a Druse spiritual leader, a rabbi and a qadi enrolled in a law school have in common? At first glance, not much - besides the desire to get a law degree. But over the past two years, a diverse classroom full of Israeli clergymen - Christian, Muslim, Druse and Jewish - at the Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono have discovered that while they may not agree on issues of faith, they can still learn to like each other. Every Tuesday, these clergymen, who receive generous tuition grants from Ono, attend a full day of lectures on the Israeli legal system. Heated debates erupt in the classroom over issues such as the Law of Return, which grants Jews automatic citizenship, or the state's self-definition as Jewish and democratic, which most non-Jewish clergymen consider an oxymoron. Still, many personal ties have been formed along the way. "When Rabbi Yaron Ben-David's wife gave birth, the entire class wanted to buy him a present," relates Sheikh Moafaq Tareef, spiritual leader of the Druse community in Israel and one of the law students at Ono. "Rabbi Ben-David always took it upon himself to take notes in class, to print them out neatly and to distribute them to everyone. We all felt a need to repay him for his kindness. So we bought him a nice case for his citron [etrog, one of the four species used to celebrate Succot]. We all inscribed our names on the cover. It was very exciting." But relations can become tense, too. For instance, Qadi Camal Rayan, a senior member of the Islamic Movement, tells how disappointed he was with some of the rabbis in his class after they refused to sign a petition against the Dutch caricatures of Muhammad that aroused Muslim rancor in September 2005 and on the one-year anniversary of their appearance in 2006. "I just wanted everyone to sign a statement that rejected any disparaging attacks on religious symbols. But one of the rabbis who refused to sign mentioned all sorts of things that had nothing whatsoever to do with the petition. Things like Kassam rockets being shot from Gaza and Palestinian terrorism," said Rayan. The classmates did succeed in reaching a consensus that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial was an anathema. Also, all the religious leaders have a common gripe against the secular legal system. Over the past decade, especially during Aharon Barak's stint as president of the Supreme Court, there has been a gradual weakening of powers held by the religious courts. These courts - Druze, Christian, Muslim and Jewish - are empowered to marry and divorce in accordance with religious laws. But their jurisdiction over the financial matters involved with the dissolution of a marital bond has been limited. The feeling of discrimination shared by the different religions vis-à-vis the secular Israeli legal system creates a feeling of unity. Nevertheless, arguments are not uncommon. During a meeting that The Jerusalem Post had at the Ono campus with Rayan and three other clergymen from the course, a sharp verbal exchange broke out. Rabbi Eliezer Schenkolewski, who leads a congregation in Beit Shemesh, described the dangers a Jew faced entering a Palestinian-controlled area such as Gaza. "A Jew who enters Gaza City on Monday would be buried on Tuesday," said Schenkolewski in an attempt to illustrate what he called "Arabs' overtly discriminatory treatment of Jews." Schenkolewski was answering claims by Rayan that Arab Israelis were discriminated against and felt disenfranchised. Rayan retorted that Gaza was "under Israeli occupation, and so was all of Judea and Samaria, so it was no wonder that Jews' lives in these places are in danger." "You [Israelis] kill people, innocent people, drop bombs, prevent civilians from receiving medical aid," he said. Dudi Schwartz, vice president of Ono and dean of the Faculty of Law, said the goal of bringing together spiritual leaders from diverse backgrounds was to increase understanding. "We want to show that it is possible to bring together religious leaders for constructive discussion at a time when religion is being blamed for some of the worst military conflagrations across the globe," said Schwartz. "These leaders might not change their opinions on the major issues - whether religious or political. But that does not necessarily stand in the way of creating friendships with people who think differently from you," he said. "And if these leaders think it is possible, maybe others will follow - and that is an added value that is impossible to calculate." Father Dr. Elias Daw, president of the Appellate Tribunal of the Melkite (Catholic) Church, said that his primary hope was that the meetings at Ono would bring about "a change in mentality." "Each religious group lives in a ghetto. One does not understand the other. Arab Christians are stuck in the middle: For Jews, I am an Arab, and for Muslims, I am a Christian," he said. "We need to change our outlook, we need to find a common ground, we need to stop acting like enemies."