Encounter the unknown! Study tours of “Islam in Israel” by ICCI

Brother Olivier, one of the veteran monks in the Benedictine monastery in Abu Gosh, loves singing. He loves it so much that he is sometimes standing alone in the old church and sings his favorite songs. A local Jewish-Israeli policeman loves singing as well. As luck would have it these two discovered each other which led to their performing together at a recent ceremony of the Israeli police.

The Israeli-Palestinian women in the community center of Abu Gosh are proud of what they achieved. A few years ago the center was built with the help of the Israeli government and since then female Israeli Palestinian director of the community center has organized special empowerment workshops for the women of Abu Gosh. One of the workshops dealt with health care and was organized by Jewish women from Hadassah College Jerusalem. These seminars have totally changed the lives of the women in the town. They are now exercising more, including swimming weekly in the swimming pool of one of the neighboring kibbutzim. And they are raising their children with more freedom and more friendship, in a less authoritarian style than in the past.

The Israeli Arab city of Kafr Kassem is known for two things: Firstly, they are located in the area of central Israel known as “the triangle” – populated mostly by Muslims – and surrounded by Jewish cities and communities. Secondly, it is famous for the massacre of 1956 done by Israeli border police. Until today the massacre is very controversial and when a few years ago seven rabbis in ICCI’s KEDEM program went to the memorial to express their moral outrage without making a political statement, it was a huge step in the direction of reconciliation.

What do these three stories show? That cooperation is possible in Israel and that “Behind politics people come together and can love each other” (Brother Olivier).

What else have these three stories in common? They were all heard by participants of the “Islam in Israel” study tour organized by ICCI in the frame of a summer program at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem.

On July 5th, a group of American Jewish laypersons visited the monastery, where they met with Brother Olivier, one of the veteran monks, the mosque, and the city council, where they met with Mr. Issa Jaber, Director of Education for the town, and the community center of Abu Ghosh. At the end of the day the group was privileged to meet with Mohamad Zibdeh – the Kadi of Yaffo and former Kadi of Jerusalem –to learn first-hand about the inner workings of the Muslim courts in Israel.

On July 12th a group of North American rabbis, participated in another study tour led by Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish – director of the ICCI. The participants saw the only Palestinian teacher-training college in an Israeli Arab village in Israel – the Al QassemiCollege in Baka El Gharbiyah – where they learned about the way Islam is taught to emerging teachers. Later in the day the rabbis visited Kafar Kassem to learn about the implications of the massacre for the consciousness of Palestinian citizens who live in that town today.

After describing some of the main aspects of the program and the experiences of the participants I want to write a few words about my own impressions.

As a German student intern with ICCI this summer, I personally learned a great deal from these two study tours. Although I live already for a several months in Jerusalem and have been in many Palestinian cities both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, and I have worked for an organization who helps build up democracy in Palestine and have many Palestinian friends, I still learned more than I expected during the trips.

I got an insider’s view into the internal dynamics of Palestinian society in Israel, the way Palestinians understand education and how they manage their daily life in a a very complex situation. One statement by one of the Israeli Palestinians whom we met fascinated me: “There is a lot of discrimination going on in Israel, we are not accepted by the Jewish majority but I also have to admit that we Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are one of the best treated minorities in the world.” I knew about the ongoing discrimination and the attempts by some Israeli Jewish politicians to make the life of their Palestinian citizens even harder, but I would not have expected such a sentence from a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

These study tours deepened my already existing thoughts about how gray the situation is. Gray in the way that there is no black and white – no good and bad – but also gray in the way that there might be existing projects which give me hope even though their impact in Israeli and Palestinian societies is not large enough yet.

“Take my side, but don’t be one-sided”

This quote by Elias Chacour – the Archbishop Metropolitan of the Melkite Catholic Diocese of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all of Galilee – became the slogan of the seminar organized by Ophir Yarden – the director of ICCI’s Center for Interreligious Encounter with Israel – from June 5thuntil June 16th2010 for a group of M.A. students in International Relations from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

15 students led by two professors with mixed religious background were enabled by ICCI to experience Israel and Palestine from non-typical and challenging perspectives. This seminar was mainly politically based and presented the participants many narratives and opinions about the ongoing conflicts in the region. The program started with 2 tales of 1 city – Jaffa – and provided the group in the following days with other special experiences a visit to the “triangle” region, home hospitality with Palestinian families in Bethlehem or a presentation by a settler in Kefar Etzion. The students and their professors were very much interested in as many perspectives as possible and experienced many challenges for their own academic thinking about this case study.

The seminar also provided the participants with eye-openers. The accommodation in Bethlehem was such an experience for many students to break stereotypes about Palestinians.

One of the students told us: “I look forward to the time when I can stop talking and get my hands dirty and hopefully be part of the change and reconciliation process” and one professor assessed the importance of the seminar by telling Ophir Yarden: “I want to personally thank you for the incredible work in putting the program together. I have been doing study seminars with students for 25 years and this was one of the best. I am overwhelmed with what I have learned.”

Ophir Yarden summed it up by saying: “Perhaps there are three possible ways to experience Israel and Palestine. A tour shows you the sights of the region. A pilgrimage reinforces what one already knows, feels and believes. ICCI‘s seminar challenged what participants already know and invite them to consider new perspectives.” We feel that we achieved ICCI‘s goal in this seminar.

 


Coexistence in the Middle East – What is HIStory?

 

Why is it actually HIStory and not HERstory or THEIRstory? We use the term “his” because the world was for centuries ruled by men and the literal meaning of the word “history” shows the problem of telling a story from one’s perspective, not from an objective point of view. History is never right or wrong, it is a matter of perspective. The Israeli-Arab war of 1948 is known in Israeli society as the “Independence War” while the Palestinians and the Arabs in general call it the Nakbah (“Catastrophe”). Jews call the land on which they are living “Eretz Israel”, while the Palestinians call it “Palestine”. The Jews are tracing their roots back to the exodus from Egypt while the Palestinians say they are descendants of the Canaanites. Both opinions are not wrong.

On July 4, 2010, participants of the „Coexistence in the Middle East” program heard two lectures about the two narratives of the history of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora, co-directors of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information taught students from all over the world what it actually means to look at the past from different perspectives. Both veteran activists and practitioners told their side of the story and concluded with the statement that there can not be agreement on the past because all sides of the story are correct, but that there can and should be agreement on the future for peace.

Elaborating on this point, they stated the following. Opinions regarding the starting point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are divided, and for each event in this conflict, at least two different narratives unfold. This is okay as long as we do not blame someone as being incorrect or even lying. It is necessary to understand different experiences, emotions and reactions to past events and learning from this, Israelis and Palestinians should accept the conflicting narratives of the past to agree about it. Both peoples need to look forward and to overcome all the disputes about the past, in order to create a peaceful future. Then it may still be HIStory but it will be actually THEIRstory.

ICCI and the International Institute of Leadership initiated together a joint academic tour program with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for Summer 2010, which promotes coexistence through the training of future leaders using academic and experiential seminars that allow direct contact with different cultures. The special academic program, which is coordinated and partially taught by ICCI director Dr. Ron Kronish, is also sponsored by the Israel National Commission for UNESCO.

 

Thilo Schöne is a student intern with ICCI this summer. Among other things, he is responsible for ICCI’s blog and Facebook page. He will also deal with possible donations from German foundations. Thilo is a senior at Dresden University, Germany, majoring in Political Science and History. He specialized in Middle Eastern Studies and Israeli Politics and interned at the European Parliament in Brussels. Thilo is politically active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany and participated in exchange programs of the Willy Brandt Center, meeting Israeli and Palestinian young people. Originally from Dresden, he spent a semester at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and interned in parallel at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, East Jerusalem.