On interreligious dialogue: lessons learned

I have learned over and over again that Christians are no longer our enemy.

Man holding a bible (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Man holding a bible
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
During the past 25 years, as the founding director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, I have been actively engaged in the grassroots work of interreligious dialogue and education in Israel and internationally. While this work has had its share of ups and downs, successes and obstacles, challenges and setbacks, I can say that without a doubt, I have learned a great deal about the role of dialogue in peace-building in our part of the world, by trial and error and by persistence and partnership with key people and organizations.
A few years ago, when I began thinking about retirement, I decided to edit a book of essays which would bring together some of the best thinking, as well as reflection on practice by Jews, Christians and Muslims with whom I have labored in the vineyards of dialogue for the past quarter century. This led to the publication of Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel – Voices of Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). This is the first work of its kind in many years, and much of the information in it is virtually unknown and certainly unappreciated in much of Israel and in most of the world.
The 22 essays in this book are meant to inform readers about significant projects and programs that have been going on for decades, mostly under the radar, usually without much fanfare or publicity.
In addition, many people who have already read it have told me that they have been inspired by the idea that interreligious dialogue, education and action can be a substantial force for reconciliation and peacebuilding in this part of the world.
What are the main lessons that I and my colleagues have learned from engaging in interreligious dialogue in Israel and Palestine over the past 25 years? Firstly, I have learned that interreligious dialogue, when it is done well, with good facilitation, careful planning, and persistent implementation, can be very helpful on the grassroots level of our ongoing conflict, in building trust among people including religious leaders, educators, youth and young adults.
Secondly, I have discovered over and over again that there are in fact people to talk with on “the other side.” Many Palestinians, especially those who live in Israel and are citizens here, are eager to encounter their Jewish neighbors and to understand them better, with the goal of learning to live in peaceful coexistence within our country and within the region.
Thirdly, I have encountered Palestinians of goodwill in east Jerusalem and in the West Bank who are also seriously interested in dialogue and a concrete resolution of our conflict. In contrast to conventional wisdom, not all Palestinians are terrorists. The opposite is the case: most Palestinians – whether they be Christians or Muslims – are interested in getting on with life and learning to live together in peaceful relations, rather than prolonging the conflict, which is harmful to them as well as to us. It is the minority of rejectionists on their side – as well as on our side – who prevent the peace process from going forward and diminish all attempts to bring peace to our region due to their incitement to hatred and exclusionist ideologies.
Fourth, I have encountered moderate Muslims, both in Israel and around the world, who preach and teach a version of Islam that is vastly different than the one represented in the mainstream media and on the Internet. Four of these Muslims present their views of Islam in eye-opening essays, in print for most of them for the first time. They are: Prof. Mohammed Dajani, founder and director of Wassatia, a Palestinian Muslim movement which actively promotes the idea of moderation in Palestine; Kadi Dr. Iyad Zahalka, the Muslim judge of the Shari’a Court in Jerusalem of the State of Israel, who also teaches at Tel Aviv University and the Jezreel Valley College; Issa Jaber, a veteran Israeli Arab educator, who is now the mayor of Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem; and Sheikh Ghassan Manasra , a Sufi educator and activist from Nazareth. In my view, much more needs to be known about Islam in Israel, and the essays in this book by prominent Muslims are one way to begin to do this.
Fifth, I have learned over and over again that Christians are no longer our enemy. The Crusades are over! We are no longer at war with Christians or Christianity. On the contrary, we in our generation are in dialogue with Christians in more ways than was ever possible in the past. For the past 50 years – since the promulgation of the famous Vatican document known as “Nostra Aetate” (“In our Time”) in October 1965, Jews and Christians at the highest levels, and at the grass roots, have been engaged in an unprecedented ongoing dialogue which has totally changed the relationships between Christians and Jews around the world. This dialogue has taken place in Israel and Palestine as well, as you can discover by reading the fascinating essays in this book by some of the leading Christian personalities in our country and our region: Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land; Prof. Maureen Fritz, founder and president of the Bat Kol Institute in Jerusalem; Fr David M. Neuhaus, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel; and Fr. Jamal Khader, professor of religion at Bethlehem University and head of the Catholic seminary in Beit Jala.
Lastly, I have seen how interreligious and intercultural dialogue can be part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem. Dialogue that remains only ephemeral, intellectual, theological or abstract is not the kind that we need in Israel and Palestine and our region.
We need a dialogue that is connected to real life, one that will foster change, one which will change the hearts and minds of the people to be aware of the benefits and opportunities inherent in genuine peace. We need peacemaking – the work of the politicians, diplomats and lawyers – that results in peace treaties, what some people call “pieces of paper.” At the same time, we urgently need peacebuilding – the work of rabbis, imams, priests, educators, psychologists, social workers, and more – to bring people to encounter one another to act for peace, not just to talk about it. Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former minister in Israel’s governments and now founder and chairman of the Mosaica Center for Religious Conflict Transformation, discusses this eloquently in his essay on “Establishing Religious Peace” in the book, and I know that he is actively working towards this goal. Moreover, I and many of my colleagues have been doing this work for many years, during which we have created successful models of dialogue; and we are currently searching for new and creative ways to do this in an impactful way in the future.
 The writer currently serves as senior adviser to the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which is a department of Rabbis for Human Rights. He is the editor of Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel – Voices of Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015)