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.