By Brian Gillis
ICCI hosted a multi-religious panel in Jerusalem on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a group of students from Williams College, in Western Massachusetts. The panel, which comprised of young people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds, covered topics ranging from the political consequences of the conflict to how the conflict affects the daily life experiences of young people in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.
“What I appreciate about this opportunity is that a panel like this makes these experiences more real,” explained ICCI Director Rabbi Ron Kronish when introducing the members of the panel. The panel included Rabbi Kronish as well as young people directly affected by the conflict on a daily basis: Mariana Handal, a Palestinian Christian who studies social work at Bethlehem University and Anat Zohar, a Jewish Israeli lawyer working in the Ministry of Justice.
Ms. Handal, in her presentation, explained the challenge of getting people together: “Right now, it is counter-normative to create panels like this, to want this discussion and as a result this is a rare thing to get both sides.” Ms. Zohar echoed those thoughts in her own analysis of the situation by explaining that “it is hard to find a place like this for pure, authentic dialogue.”
Williams Students took advantage of this rare opportunity for open and honest dialogue by participating with the speakers in both a formal and informal setting. In the formal panel, speakers both agreed on common issues but also strived to accurately represent their very different experiences.
Students from Williams immediately engaged in the formal discussion and peppered the panelists with questions ranging from daily life activities to challenges to intercommunity dialogue. For example, Will Slack, a Political Economy major at Williams asked: “How can this pure dialogue that we are experiencing today also bring in people of more fundamentalist backgrounds to the table as well?”
The panelists responded by explaining that though that wouldn’t consider themselves right-wing fundamentalist, they are in no way the left fringe of their faith traditions. In fact, Ms. Handal and Ms. Zohar went at length to explain the internal struggles, and external community pressures, they had to overcome to come into dialogue. Added Ms. Handal: “we are not really natural dialoguers.”
Rabbi Ron Kronish explained that ICCI tries to bring together people of all backgrounds and perspectives: “We bring in people from the right and people from the left, the goal of a panel like this is to have a real sense of what people on the ground our experiencing. The goal of this panel is not to solve the macro political problems, but understand how this conflict affects real communities.”
In fact, explained Ms. Zohar, each representative on the panel’s firm commitment to their own faith tradition helps bridge common ground: “Our commitment to our religions is not divisive, it is actually more of the common glue.”
Another common glue between members of the panel is that each of them spent time in other ICCI programs that promote long-term dialogue. Ms. Handal is a graduate of a program that is supported by ICCI called Face to Face / Faith to Faith, a year-long program run by Auburn Seminary in New York that includes a two week camp in up-state New York for members of the program and Ms. Zohar is graduate of last year’s Jerusalem Interreligious Young Adult Forum.
ICCI’s involvement in programs like Face to Face / Faith to Faith, or the Jerusalem Interreligious Young Adult Forum (JIYAF) allows their panels to pull from young adults who are leaders in promoting dialogue in their communities.
The students from Williams College stayed long after the formal panel discussion in order to connect with the panelists over an informal dinner. Ben Kaplan, an English major at Williams College, expressed the group sentiment that “this was a great addition to our program because it allowed us to understand how this conflict affects real people’s daily lives.”
The students of Williams College unanimously stated their appreciation for this “rare chance” for authentic dialogue and, as one student put it, to “get real” with other young adults living in this conflict every day.