Jews, Muslims band together to fight ignorance of each other's religion

Project to teach rabbis about Islam and imams about Judaism launched in capital.

Knee-jerk responses to the Middle East conflict often cite religion as the root of the region's long-running ills. But a new initiative sponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, Al-Qasimi College in Baka al-Gharbiya, the Nehemia Levtzion Center for Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation is looking at religion not as a cause of war, but a jumping-off point for peace. Under the banner "Teaching Islam to Jews and Judaism to Muslims in Israel," the participating institutions held a public inauguration of their project at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem this week, as they commenced their mission to bring Jews and Muslims together by educating them about the other's religion and culture. "The conflict has become both a national and religious one," said ICCI director Dr. Ron Kronish. "And in recent years, it's become more religious, on both sides. The question is, how can we marshal moderate views as opposed to extremist views? "If we can do that, and we learn more about our common values as opposed to our differences, I think this could help us understand one another better, and help us live together. After all, religion and culture play such a central role in both Jewish and Islamic societies," Kronish said. Kronish explained that the initiative had therefore been narrowed down to reevaluate the way both religions are taught within four realms: formal education, meaning the state school system; informal education, which includes seminars and workshops; higher education - the colleges and universities; and religious education, which aims to involve religious leaders from both sides in ongoing dialogue and exchange. "We're just getting started," Kronish said. "So we don't know exactly what this is going to look like in the end. But our first step is to map it out, and understanding what's going on [in the various educational sectors today]. From what we've seen so far, though, not much is being done and what is being done is highly problematic." One of the possibilities Kronish spoke about includes a change in curricula, allowing for more interreligious and cross-cultural exchange and a greater dissemination of knowledge to combat the common misconceptions held by both sides. "Muslim students do learn somewhat about Jewish culture in Israeli public schools," he said. "But Jews learn very little about Islam or Islamic culture in their schools. We do want to make additions in schools' curriculum, or revisions within the current curriculum. But we're not that far along yet." One of the things the initiative has begun to do is bring people from these different realms together so they can study the problems and come up with real answers. This has already being implemented via religious exchanges between Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. "As part of the ICCI's Kedem program, which brings different religious leaders together, we've already had groups of rabbis learning about Islam and imams learning about Judaism," Kronish said. "In this kind of dialogue, both sides are able to learn something positive about each other and increase the level of friendship between them. We've also hosted Islamic religious leaders in Jewish communities. We've done that a few times already, and we hope to do it more." These encounters allow the religious leaders to learn more and then bring what they've learned back into their own communities, Kronish explained. Given their high hopes, voices at the gathering wondered why an initiative like this has waited for 60 years, since Israel's inception, to move forward. "I think we've waited because people have been living in fear for so long," Kronish said. "The conflict dominates our consciousness, and it's difficult to pursue dialogue in that kind of atmosphere. "But we have to ask ourselves, who is my neighbor? And to answer that, we need to learn about each other's religion and culture, because they have such a large impact on the societies of either side."