The Challenge of Maintaining Interreligious Dialogue in the Current Era

I was recently asked to be a discussant on a panel on the topic of “The Challenge of Maintaining Interreligious Dialogue in the Current Era” at a conference at the Western Galilee College in Acco (Acre). It was my first visit to this college, which I was told has 40% Arab students and 60% Jewish ones, reflecting the demography in the area.

On the panel–which was moderated by Dr. Albert Lincoln, Secretary-General of the Bahai International Community, were 4 colleagues, with whom I have worked for many years. Two of them–Rabbi Shmuel Reiner, one of the Heads of Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa, and Fr. Nadeem Shakour, Head of the Greek-Catholic Community in Meilya–participated for 5 years in our KEDEM (“Kol Dati Mefayes”–“Voices for Religious Reconciliation”) program, which ran from 2003-2008 and included many hundreds of hours of serious and systematic dialogue over these years, both abroad and in Israel. When they were asked by the moderator to name a successful program that they had participated in, they both pointed to KEDEM. Rabbi Reiner said that the program was extremely interesting, that it contained serious study, and that it was possible to talk about difficult subjects in an atmosphere of genuine trust. Fr. Shakour said that he misses the KEDEM dialogue group because it was a great opportunity for him to really get to know rabbis on a personal basis, and he felt that great mutual respect and admiration was developed among all members in the group.

The other 2 members of the panel are members of our current Galilee Religious Leaders Forum, which has been meeting for the past 4 years in the Galilee, in cooperation with the Division of Religious Communities of the Ministry of Interior. Kadi Hamzi Hamzi said that feels a great warmth among the religious leaders in the Galilee–8 rabbis, 8 Christians, 8 Druze and 8 Muslims–who have been encountering each other and learning from each other in meaningful ways. Despite all the differences among them, he said, they are finding that they have much in common! His Druze colleague, Imam Jamil Hatib, agreed with him completely.

It was heartwarming to travel all the way to Acco to hear such significant comments from religious leaders who find so much satisfaction in ICCI programs! I appreciated their candor and their sensitive and substantive remarks, as did all of the people in the audience.

The conference was sponsored by The Western Galilee College, the Graduate Program in Conflict Management and Negotiation, the Project for the Study of Religion, Culture and Peace of the Interdisciplinary Department in Social Sciences of Bar-Ilan University, in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Israel.

A new generation of Muslim religious leaders in Israel

We were privileged yesterday to host Kadi Iyad Zahalka, the new kadi of Jerusalem, at ICCI’S monthly lecture series on MEETING RELIGIOUS LEADERS.

Kadi Zahalka is part of a new generation of kadis (Muslim judges) in Israel who are intelligent, effective and energetic in their commitment to their professional work in the Muslim courts of the state of Israel. Born in the village of Kafr Kara, in the Wadi Ara section of Israel, south of Haifa, Kadi Zahalka studied Law at Tel Aviv University. Following Law School, he was elected as the vice-chairperson of this local council, a position in which he served for three years.

After he discovered that politics was not for him, he became active in the Shari’a courts of Israel and served for 6 years as the Director of these Muslim courts in Israel. In 2009, he was appointed as the kadi of Haifa and this past March, 2012, he was appointed the kadi of Jerusalem. Kadi Zahalka has written two books and many articles and is now finishing his doctorate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the Fiqh al Aqalliyyat Doctrine, the Muslim Minority Jurisprudence, and its implications regarding Muslims in Israel.

Kadi Zahalka talked to us about the “revolution” that has taken place in the Muslim religious courts in Israel. Since the change in the law in 2001, the criteria for becoming a kadi have been dramatically upgraded. Each kadi needs to have higher education in Islam from a recognized university in Israel or he must have at least 6 years of experience as a lawyer in Israel. In addition, he must be actively religious, and a person of high integrity. Moreover, he must pass a very difficult exam in Islamic Law (which most candidates fail, according to him!).

Today there are 11 kadis in Israel—1 in each of 8 regions of the country and 3 on the Appeals Board. Each kadi had the status of a Shofet (judge) in the civil service of Israel. These kadis are becoming the highly respected religious leaders of the Muslim community of over 1.2 million Muslim citizens of Israel. When a kadi walks into a mosque, the imam will acknowledge his presence and often ask him to lead the prayers or preach the sermon.

In addition to his work as a judge, Kadi Zahalka is active in interreligious relations. He spoke at our Iftar dinner and seminar last summer and is open to meeting Jews and the Jewish community of Israel in serious and sensitive dialogue.

We in ICCI are pleased that we can call Kadi Zahalka –and many other kadis in Israel –our friend. He is a person of great knowledge and integrity, with superior communications skills, making him a sought-after lecturer in Israel these days. Moreover, I believe that it is important for the Jews of Israel (and abroad) to know that there is a new generation of kadis in Israel who are not only earning the respect of their own community but also of the Jewish community in Israel as well.


Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish

Read this in Hebrew and/or Arabic, under the cut…

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On Jerusalem Day

I received an e-mail yesterday from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a highly respected civil rights group.  According to the report, ongoing government policy has “stifled the job market and the economical development of East Jerusalem.” The report continues: “harmful policies and the neglect of the Israeli state authorities and the Jerusalem Municipality have lead to an unprecedented deterioration in the state of 360,882 Palestinians in Jerusalem: 78% of the total Palestinian population in the Jerusalem District live below the poverty line, including 84% of the children, according to the Israeli National Insurance Institute.”

Is this the Jerusalem we celebrate on Jerusalem Day, when Jerusalem was reunited 45 years ago? Do we have a vision for Jerusalem that is a shared it for all its inhabitants?

I read in yesterday morning’s Ha’Aretz daily newspaper that “Organizers Pledge a quieter Jerusalem Day this year”. Why? Because last year’s Jerusalem Day Flag march March was deliberately inciteful to Palestinian residents of the city. Last year, hundreds of young Jews marched through Palestinian neighborhoods, chanting  slogans such as “death to the Arabs”, which marred the celebration of this special day in the Jewish calendar. According to this morning’s newspapers, this happened again this year, despite promises by the organizers of the march that they would prevent it from happening again.  According to one newspaper, hundreds of young people spent hours shouting at the Palestinians near Damascus gate. I will not repeat here some of the horrible slogans that  they shouted. Ten Jewish marchers were arrested and five Palestinians were arrested for throwing objects at the marchers.

But there are other voices.

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Armenian Genocide Remembrance

by Breanne White, ICCI intern

Armenians in Jerusalem and around the world commemorated the Armenian Genocide on Tuesday, April 22. On Monday, April 21, in conjunction with this commemoration and as part of ICCI’s “Encounters with Local Religious Leaders,” Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate addressed a group at the Yedidya Synagogue in Jerusalem to raise awareness of the Armenian Genocide.

The Armenians have had a presence in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas for more than 1500 years, and the Armenian church currently assists in protecting the sanctity of Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Archbishop Shirvanian himself was born in Haifa, where his parents met after fleeing the horrors of the Armenian Genocide.
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Palestinians in Israel–The Arab Minority and the Jewish State

Last week I attended a fascinating symposium on PALESTINIANS IN ISRAEL—THE ARAB MINORITY AND THE JEWISH STATE, based on the new book by Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. The symposium was held at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. On the panel, responding to the book was Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, of Ashkelon College and a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute, Prof. Shlomo Avineri, an old friend and a retired professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University, and Minister of Intelligence, MK Dan Meridor. Below are some of the highlights of this symposium, from my point of view.

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Dialogue and Identity in the Galilee

Over 300 5th graders and their teachers from 10 Arab and Jewish schools in the Galilee met for an end-of -year fun-filled learning day at Bet Yigal Alon at Kibbutz Genossar, on the shores of Lake Kineret this past week. The event was organized by the staff of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Christian Relations–which I direct, since last year, when it began to work in cooperation with ICCI–and Keren Tali of the Schechter Institutes of Israel.

The atmosphere was pleasant and normal, almost normative. One had the sense that Arab and Jewish children could actually get along in Israeli society! It was actually happening, and it was quite inspiring.

This is the culmination of the 6th year of this “Dialogue and Identity” program which has now been mainstreamed in 12 Arab and Jewish schools in Israel. It is part of the regular school life of students from varied backgrounds in the region, not an exceptional event or elective event for specific individuals or groups. During the course of the year, students meet uni-nationally in their own schools–Christian and Jewish separately–and there are also 4 encounters with “the other”. These meetings focus on getting to know the traditions and culture of “the other”, as well as one’s own traditions and culture.

At the end of the day, it was announced that the Arab and Jewish teachers from the program were going to organize a get-together to celebrate another successful year in this program! It was also announced that each class from this year would have 2 follow-up encounters next year with their counterparts.

The good news is that we have found funding to continue this program for next year, and we, together with the Schechter Institutes, are now looking for more funding to expand this unique program–the only one of its kind–in Israeli Society.

You probably won’t read about it in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Nor will you see it on CNN or FOX NEWS. But it is happening in Israel,in the midst of everything else going on in our country and our region, and it is becoming a part of normal life for a few hundred young people in Israel, and hopefully hundreds, if not thousands more in the future.

Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish
Director, JCJCR and ICCI

Philadelphian group visits Abu Ghosh and Jerusalem

This past Sunday, I took a group of Christians and Jews to the nearby Muslim town of Abu Gosh to meet local women who told them an inspiring story about their achievements in their women’s empowerment program in the local community center during the last 5-6 years, where they work together with Hadassah hospital in issues of community health, including exercise, proper nutrition and genetic testing. The women from Abu Gosh were lively and encouraging and very proud of their progress in these areas in recent years. They described this health program as transformative for all of them!

We also met student and faculty from the local high school to learn about Arab Education in Israel. The students too were eloquent and inspiring, and shared with the participants their own personal views about education and growing up in the village. When asked by someone what they would say to the Israeli Prime Minister if they were to meet him, they responded by saying: equality and justice.

This unique group of 45 Christians and Jews from Philadelphia, were brought to Israel by their clergy for 10 days on a joint tour of Israel with their clergy. Members of Main Line Reform Temple, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church of Germantown and their clergy, Rabbi David Straus, and Rev. Nancy Muth, Cindy Jarvis and Louisa Umphres embarked on a very special trip to Israel which gave them a chance to see Israel (and Bethlehem) through each others’ eyes.

In addition to visiting the Reform synagogue to which I belong in Jerusalem—-Kehillat Kol Haneshama—-where they received a briefing from me about the special nature of our Friday night worship–my wife Amy and I joined the group for Shabbat dinner. During the dinner, we learned how much they enjoyed and felt welcome at our Shabbat services.

Moreover, on Shabbat afternoon, we hosted the whole group at our home to meet leadership and participants in ICCI programs. It was a wonderful opportunity for the group to meet people who engage in dialogue and action projects on a grass-roots level in Israel. Unfortunately, they would not have read about our work in their local newspaper, or seen it on their local TV stations. Hopefully, some of these people will write about this experience on their Facebook page or on their own blogs!

It is not often that Christians and Jews come to Israel to travel together to openly learn about each other’s religions and cultures and to experience the complexity and creativity in a mutual fashion. Hats off to the religious leaders from Philadelphia who organized this unique study tour to Israel.

Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish
Director, ICCI and JCJCR

Baby Blessings

by Sarah Bernstein, Associate Director, ICCI

Baby hat and card

Some time ago, a Jewish member of one of ICCI’s Women’s Dialogue groups, who spent several summers working with senior citizens in the US, was approached by some of the seniors with a proposition. A few of the Jewish women who attend the Kislak Adult Center in New Jersey were involved in a project knitting hats for newborn babies. When the seniors heard about our women’s dialogue group they were thrilled and asked us to distribute the hats to new mothers in Jerusalem hospitals so that newborn babies of all faiths could ‘get off to a healthy start.’

The dialogue group accepted the hats with gratitude, and worked hard to put together a greeting card appropriate to the occasion with blessings from the three religions. Much care was taken to ensure that none of the blessings would offend members of another religious group. After translating the card into three languages, the women were ready to go, as part of a wider project aimed at making our Jerusalem hospitals more culturally accessible and sensitive.

The first hospital we approached refused us permission to distribute the hats – claiming that hospital policy banned the distribution of any materials on their wards. Knowing that all sorts of things are given out in Israeli hospitals, we sensed that the problem was the blessings from the three religions in three languages, and that the hospital feared a negative response from a patient or staff member.

The group therefore decided to go to a different hospital and simply try our luck. Five of us met up and drove over to Ein Kerem hospital. How odd that we felt apprehensive as we approached the ward – one might think we were trying to commit a crime, rather than give out gifts and blessings to the new-born babies. Shortly after we arrived we were told by one of the nurses that we had to get permission to distribute the hats, and we were worried that consent would be refused. However, once again our fears and stereotypes were challenged: when we found the administration offices a very nice Orthodox Jewish man expressed admiration and enthusiasm (and to our surprise even read the card aloud in Arabic) and told us to go ahead. We returned to the maternity wards and gave out the beautiful hats with the blessings attached, to a warm reception from everyone we met. People were delighted, expressed sincere gratitude and read the blessings with interest. The vast majority of the women were Orthodox Jews – a reflection of the demography of Jerusalem. We came across only two Arab women, together in the same room (an issue to which we may return after we visit more wards and see if there is a differential rooming policy, as recently raised in a Knesset committee).

The highlight came when we realized that one of the Arab women was the teacher whom we had visited after the Palestinian school bus crash, there with her newborn baby! We remembered her fear for her baby after the terrible accident, and now here she was with her baby safely born, her mother by her side. She remembered us too, and was happy to see us back again under happier circumstances. We all felt deeply moved at the wonderful coincidence that brought us back to her bedside at this fortuitous moment.

Soon we will visit another maternity ward, perhaps in East Jerusalem, to continue spreading a message of the joys of diversity as we share in the blessings of life:

May you raise this baby to study, to marry in love and to perform good deeds. (Jewish prayer book)

And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:5)

Wealth and children embellish life. (Quran –Al Kahef:45)