What if Everyone in the World Just Sat Down Together and Talked?

I arrived at my third ICCI “event” and right away I felt like I was witnessing something amazing. I made it to the ICCI office a little early and I was lucky enough to witness the final part of a program ICCI arranged for a visiting group from the U.K. The group was organized by the St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in London, and composed of twelve men and women of various ages. But these weren’t just any men and women; these were individuals from diverse backgrounds. There was a Muslim woman of Pakistani decent, a Catholic woman from The U.S. and a Muslim man who was a convert from Christianity. Right off the bat, that would strike most people as odd. These people were not screaming at each other or interrupting each other; they were simply speaking to each other as human beings who respect each other.

Apparently I had just missed something of an argument within the group and they were attempting to calm things down a bit before their meeting ended. A young woman said something that to me was a very important statement about dialogue. She said, “sometimes people just need to get things off of their chest.” A man added some significant thoughts as well, “we can both learn from each other. It is important to try and balance the arguments on both sides, but it does not help to play the blame game.” Another man agreed but added, “it is often human instinct to play the blame game and genuine dialogue is not always an easy task.” The fact that this diverse group of people could calmly come up with such insightful statements about the process of dialogue was incredible. Since I was younger, I had always wondered what would happen if we could just sit people in a room with each other and show them that they are all just people struggling to survive and thrive in this world, and here right before my eyes it was happening. The meeting ended and the group was given a five-minute break to collect their thoughts and then regroup for the next part of the evening.

The next activity was a panel of four ICCI participant alumni. The panel began with Dr. Kronish giving a brief introduction and posing three questions to the panel members:

(1) Who are you and what is your connection to ICCI?

(2) Can you identify one positive insight that came out of their participation in their respective dialogue groups?

(3) Had there been some sort of major difficulty or challenge that posed a threat to the successful conduct of the group?

A young man named Hani was the first to respond. He is a Muslim Israeli from Beit Safafa in Southern Jerusalem, currently studying law. He was a participant in the Jerusalem Interreligious Young Adult Forum (JIYAF) program of ICCI in 2009-10. The most positive thing that Hani felt he gained from his participation was “to be open and accepting of ideas, even when they might be different from what you believe in.” If every one in the world abided by this one simple guideline, I truly believe that there would be no war. Unfortunately, this wish is very distant from reality, but I wonder how much closer it would be if everyone in the world got even one chance to sit down and truly have a mature dialogue with the people they view as the “others.”

Next to introduce herself was a woman named Haneen. She is also a Muslim Israeli from Jerusalem. She is a PhD student and she studied at Hebrew University. Haneen was a participant in the second cycle of the Between Memory and Reconciliation program, a joint program of ICCI and Japan’s Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) Buddhist organization. The Israeli group and a Japanese group of Buddhist students coordinated by RKK staff  held joint seminars twice, once in Israel and once in Japan, to learn more about each other’s situations. The major insight that Haneen spoke of was learning that she’s not the only one who has suffered from conflict. She learned that the Jewish people have suffered too. She said her experience in Hiroshima was very interesting, because she learned first hand about another people who went through a major catastrophe, or naqba in Arabic. This all taught her to understand what it really means to be a human being, that all nations suffer, and there are always two sides to every conflict.

The third to introduce herself was Anat. Anat is a Jewish Israeli from Jerusalem. She participated in the JIYAF program with Hani. Anat is a lawyer working for the Ministry of Justice. For Anat, the most important thing about the forum was that it was the first time in her life that she spoke with Palestinians living in her city. This dialogue group provided her with an opportunity to actually hear from the other side.

The last to introduce himself was Gedalia. Gedalia is an 18 year old from Jerusalem. He is currently learning in a Yeshiva for a year before going to the army. Gedalia was a participant in the Face to Face / Faith to Faith program of the ICCI and Auburn Theological Seminary in 2008-09. For him, the most important perspective he gained was the idea that people usually feel like they have to talk about what they have in common with people, however he feels that “when you want to create a real relationship, you have to deal with the core issues and differences, not just the similarities.”

In the next round of answers the participants shared the biggest issues that they felt their groups had. Hani was once again first to respond. The hardest time for him in the group was during the month of what is for the Jews Israel’s Independence Day, and for the Palestinians who lost their homes a naqba, a catastrophe. He said that during that month he sometimes felt hopeless about the dialogue, but that he knows you have to learn to live with the situation.

For Anat, it was difficult to continue having any relations with Palestinians once the dialogue group ended. She feels that she did not succeed in taking what she had learned about communication outside of the group and into her personal life.

Gedalia said the hardest thing that was a struggle throughout the dialogue was the constant habit of individuals to want to sit and debate. It was hard to detach themselves from national identity and just try to communicate as human beings.  The most difficult times arose out of the war with Gaza. Gedalia remembers coming to the group’s meeting feeling proud that his country was taking a stand; however his pride was somewhat weakened by the fact that his Muslim friend in the group, from Abu Ghosh, was hurting and worried over his family and friends in Gaza. Gedalia came to a very important realization: when one side gets pride and victory, the other side has pain and suffering.

The panel concluded with a short, formal questions-and-answers session, and then the participants of the group, along with the panel members, headed across the street for an informal meal together. At this meal, we all sat and talked happily, just like any other group of people out to eat. We got a few curious looks from other diners as we entered and took our seats, me sandwiched between two Muslims and diagonal from a Christian, and across from a Jewish Israeli, but by this point it no longer felt strange for me to be in such diverse company. If only every one in the world could sit down and have a good, peaceful meal together, what a world it would be.

Eid al-Adha Greeting from S.A Ibrahim

 Mr. S.A. Ibrahim, a friend of ICCI and a man deeply committed to interreligious dialogue for the sake of peace, is a Muslim American businessman of Indian origin. The following are his Eid al-Adha greetings and thoughts and memories about this holiday, which he asked to be forwarded to other friends of ICCI. We join him in his wishes for a joyful holiday to all Muslims.

I would like to wish all my friends across all faiths and across the world, Eid Mubarak, and to those who were fortunate enough to perform Hajj this year, I wish Hajj Mubarak. May your Eid be filled with joy and become a time to be grateful for your blessings, and may you be able to celebrate with your family and friends.  

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A day in Abu Ghosh

Today I was lucky enough to accompany Dr. Ron Kronish, the director of ICCI,  on a program he led and organized in Abu Ghosh.  For me this was an amazing and eye-opening experience, but for him it was just another day doing his job.  As the new intern here the program that Dr. Kronish organized for the “Tikun Olam” group in Abu Ghosh was my first actual event of any kind sponsored, or organized by the ICCI.

We began our mini tour of the town by meeting with the town’s Director of Education, Issa Jaber. As I learned on the drive from Jerusalem to Abu Ghosh, Jaber is one of the four main families that make up the majority of the town’s population.  Mr. Jaber talked mainly about what its like to be a member of the Arab minority in the state of Israel.  He began by saying “It’s ok.” But he went on to explain that because of the larger conflict that exists between the Palestinian nation and the Jewish nation, he faces dilemmas every day.  He spoke of the Nakba, which for Palestinians means the Catastrophe.  From this discussion, I learned more about what happened to the Palestinians when the state of Israel was born in 1948.  For them, it is a catastrophe because thousands of people were forced from their homes. Some even had families that had been living in the land for generations, yet they lost their homes and their heritage.

To me this seems like such a familiar story.     Other people come in, be it by the effects of war or simply those in power allowing it to happen, and they kick all the Jews out of their homes.  Throughout history this has been the story with the Jews, and it’s been hard.  It really makes me wonder how we as Jews cannot empathize better with the Palestinians who also feel that they have a worthy claim to the land.  We always quote how G-d told Abraham from his seed he would make a nation and give the land of Israel to them.  However, I think that G-d has been misunderstood.  Abraham had two children from his seed, and I wonder if G-d wouldn’t just prefer if all of Abraham’s children could get along better.

Issa supports the idea of two equal states coexisting side-by-side as equals.  I too have grown to support the idea more and more.  It would be much more productive if the Israelis and Palestinians could work together as a team and realize that our two Semitic nations have much more in common than generally realized.  Which brings me to another question brought up in the discussion by a participant that I was wondering myself.

Issa and most of the inhabitants of Abu Ghosh and the surrounding Jewish Kibbutzim get along very well and even coexist in peace.  However, the media never choose to write stories on these positive developments.  Instead, it chooses to focus on the negatives and the violence that unfortunately dominate the reality here.  I feel that if the media could show more of the good things happening, such as genuine efforts at coexistence between Jews and Arabs, that it would encourage others in the area to think more in terms of peaceful coexistence than confrontational war.

The last part of the program in Abu Ghosh was such an incredible experience.  The “Tikun Olam” group met at the city’s community center where five years ago an amazing transition was initiated.  This transition was a change throughout the community in the ways in which individuals view the women in the town, and the ways that the women view themselves.

We met with several of the twenty members of a women’s group that began meeting once a week on Mondays at the Center.  Before they started this group, Muslim women were hardly seen outside of their own homes, and their lives often felt empty and monotonous.  However, in this traditional Muslim community it was almost unheard of to even think about women leaving their houses with out men, and to be independent and productive.

However, these brave women decided to make a change.  They did not wish to be too radical or ruffle too many feathers; so the group started off slow.  They did not seek the attention of the media or anyone else and they even went so far as to seek outside help in integrating their new program into the community without causing unnecessary problems.  The first major step they took was to begin getting involved in the previously all male-run PTA.  They moved on to bigger things like walking for exercise as a group, learning about nutrition and beauty and even taking swimming lessons!  Their newest quest is to learn English.

In the beginning the women said they were met with a lot of skepticism and uncertainty.  The women were becoming more powerful and it was making the men a bit nervous.  It wasn’t just the men that needed convincing; in many cases the women had to convince their mothers-in-law that what they were doing was ok and that they would still be excellent mothers and wives.  Now, after five years of participating in the group, their husbands and children all accept and know that “Mondays are off-limits.”  Even the mothers-in-law have come around and formed their own group for older women and attend some tiyulim together with the original group of 20.

The best thing about their presentations was how proud these women were.  One mother of four spoke about “not being afraid or ashamed to be outside in public any more.”  Looking at their faces and listening to them you knew they really felt different.  They have given their lives more meaning.  They feel closer with their children now and able to discuss many different matters when before they felt very disconnected.  They have taken an active interest in education and the overall health of the community.  They aren’t just learning for themselves, but for their families and friends.  They are sharing the knowledge they have gained on things such as diseases and nutrition with others and as a result enriching their lives too.  In fact, when one of the women was asked about her vision of Abu Ghosh for the future, she said that she wants to see a healthy community in the years ahead, especially for her children and grandchildren.

It was impossible to sit in the room with these women and not feel proud of them.  As an American, it seemed to me that they were experiencing their own women’s liberation movement, since they were clearly keen to feel and be seen as equals to the men in the community.  This was such a moving and amazing story happening not just in Israel, but in a Muslim community!  I could not help but think about how the media could really do the world a favor and show more positive stories like this one about Muslims enriching their lives, rather than focusing on the negative things like violence or unequal gender rights.

Rachel Zakem is a 22 year old American from Cincinnati, Ohio. She recently graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs. Rachel is currently partaking in the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) study and internship program in Jerusalem, and is interning with ICCI as part of that program.