“If I want to love my neighbor, I need to know my neighbor”

By Rachael Sauceda
(as part of our Stories of Inspiration series)

Yehuda Lapian is a 26 year old student attending Hadassah College in Jerusalem and is halfway through his B.A. degree in Political Science. Unlike most of his colleagues, Yehuda has participated in an ICCI program and has come to have a better understanding of “the other.”  Yehuda, who is Jewish, was born in America, but at the age of one moved to Israel and has lived in Jerusalem ever since. Growing up in a pluralistic household, his parents always taught him to “live and let live,” and that you have to remember there is pain on “the other side.”  It was with this pluralistic view of the conflict that gave Yehuda the courage and curiosity to learn more about his neighbors.

There were many moments in his childhood and adolescent years that could have drastically changed Yehuda’s outlook of his neighbor, especially growing up during a time when suicide bombings and terrorist attacks were frequent occurrences in Jerusalem. Often times, the conflict in the region taught him that Palestinians were the enemy, but his pluralistic views at home kept him grounded. However, as a teen he witnessed the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a local restaurant. Like most people after such a catastrophic event, Yehuda lacked the ability to find meaning in the situation and immediately grappled with the thought that whoever committed this act must really have hated the local community. This moment was both confusing and challenging.

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From Tivon to “The Other”

by Rachael Sauceda

Tal Michaelis, 29, is a Jewish Israeli who works at Variety, a non-profit organization that supports and assists children with special needs in Israel. Born and raised in in Tivon, Tal did h40482_415499396650_327112936650_5174862_7005097_ner army service just outside of Jerusalem at an absorption center, and has lived in Jerusalem for the past four years.

Growing up, Tal had a generally liberal outlook and felt that Palestinians were being treated unjustly. However, her knowledge of “the other” was limited to what she gathered from the news or learned from her father. However, until participating in an ICCI program for young adults, Tal had never really met or talked with a Palestinian.

Out of curiosity and as a result of one of Tal’s friends past participation, Tal decided to participate in ICCI’s dialogue and action group. Tal merely wanted the opportunity to talk to Palestinians in order to know Palestinian perspectives of the conflict and what their realities are like. The program that she participated in through the ICCI dealt with collective memory in Israel, Palestine and Japan. Called “From Memory to Reconciliation,” this year-long program met every month for intensive workshops and seminars. Jewish, Palestinian and Japanese students came together to learn how the national or collective memory affects conflict, and as a result, how a nation can grow despite the downward pull of the conflict. Continue reading

Stories of Inspiration – A Woman’s Transformation from Ignorance to Understanding

ICCI’s newest project, Stories of Inspiration, will feature interviews with youth and young adults who are graduates of ICCI’ youth and young adult programs in recent years. We at ICCI hope that these stories inspire and motivate others to become involved in peace-building programs, whether through ICCI or in other relevant frameworks. We welcome your “comments” and your feedback to these interviews.

by Elana Lubka

I sat down with Rola, a 24 year old Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, at a small coffee shop in East Jerusalem on a late afternoon. Sitting across from her, I could not help but notice the strong sense of confidence she exuded and, as the time elapsed, her open smile. Rola is a social worker in East Jerusalem, working specifically with abused women and impoverished families in East Jerusalem.

I began by asking Rola about her childhood and her initial encounter with “the other.” She explained to me that she grew up in a very secular Muslim household. Her summers were spent in Tel Aviv and Tiberias, where she was very aware that she and her family were Palestinians, surrounded by a Jewish majority. Rola continued by noting that although she and her family swam in the same Mediterranean Sea as the other Jewish beach-goers, she would only speak to them in the direst of situations. She noted, “You have [this] idea that they hate you, so [we] don’t talk to them.” This fear, based only on the fear from other Palestinians, was what guided her adolescent years.

Growing up, this mindset was heavily enforced in all aspects of her daily life. She recalls being told by a Palestinian friend that it was explicitly written in the Torah, the holy Jewish book, that Jews must hate Palestinians. This baffled Rola, for, “why would God be so hateful to us?” This prompted Rola to ask further questions about the Torah to better understand this strange ‘commandment.’ However, her school could not provide any answers to her questions about the Torah, which only contributed to its obscurity.

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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.

JIYAF Closes a Year of Dialogue by ‘Opening a Window’

On Thursday night May 27, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Via Dolorosa, the thirteen JIYAF participants gave their friends, family, and other community members a taste of their experiences over the past eight months taking part in interreligious dialogue in Jerusalem.  At their final group presentation entitled “Opening a Window,” they exhibited the photography project that they have been working on all semester and engaged the audience in the types of activities that they did in their meetings.  I have been working as an intern at the ICCI office for the past three months, but this was the first time that I really got a sense of what it is that these discussion groups do.

I was placed in a group of ten, made up of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  We began by going around in a circle, introducing ourselves, and talking about the significance of our names.  We then did a fun activity, where we all moved around the room and assumed different poses whenever the leaders said a word like “falafel.”  After that, we were divided into partners, and got to ask our partner as many questions as we wanted to—but they were not allowed to respond.  These fun activities showed that, despite the differences between all of us—language, religion, age, nationality, etc—we were all able to have fun together.  With that common basis, the JIYAF participants explained, we would be able to talk about the more difficult issues that divided us.  The JIYAF participants reflected on their experiences from the past eight months.  They had all joined the group hoping to deepen their understanding of one another and of the situation.   Indeed, before the program, most of them had never spoken to anyone from “the other side.”  Despite all of the difficulties they encountered over the past year, every JIYAF participant said that the experience was “completely worth it.”

You can view more pictures from the event here.