By Yehuda Stolov
BUILDING BOTTOM-UP NETWORKS OF COMMUNITY TO END WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Twenty years ago I came across an interfaith dialogue group for Jewish students and Christian theology students. For me it was a brand new experience: never before had I had conversation with anyone except Jews, nor did I ever think about such a possibility.
A short while before I had taken a class at Hebrew University about the foundations of the Christian faith. A class or reading a book was my normal way of answering a new interest. Entering into face-to-face dialogue with living Christians opened an entirely new horizon. For a long time it was a kind of “intellectual fun” for me. I found myself reflecting and realizing, though, that in this process my own prejudices towards Christians and Christianity had shifted dramatically. This led me to recognize the power ofinterfaith encounter and the impact it can have on transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally, in the summer of 2001, the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) was formed.
Almost immediately Salah Aladdin joined IEA as the founding coordinator of its first group of young adults. For him it was initially a way to promote political goals, but very quickly he became fully committed to a bottom-up path for building inter-communal relations through interfaith encounter. Salah became more and more active until in 2008 he was appointed assitant director and joined me in leading the IEA.
Goals and Approach
Analyzing the Oslo Process and its collapse with the Second Intifada, which started nine months before the formation of IEA, we reached the conclusion that no political arrangement can be sustained over time without peaceful inter-communal relations on the grassroots level. In an area as small as the Holy Land, where the distance between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is never more than sixty miles, the different communities cannot avoid interaction. We have to learn to interact positively. This is a pre-condition for any sustainable political agreement, and the process towards it has to include all parts of the respective societies, regardless of their political aspirations.
Further analysis revealed that the relations between the communities of the Holy Land, sorely in need of improvement, obviously, are not the result of experience or knowledge of the negative qualities of ‘the other.’ Rather, the issue is the lack of experience and knowledge of ‘the other’ and the substitution of prejudices and stereotypes that have little to do with reality.
Consequently we concluded that exposure to the true nature of ‘the other’ will replace the prejudices with genuine knowledge and re-humanize ‘the other.’ Since prejudices are psychologically rooted, it is not enough to address them only on the cognitive-rational level. Uprooting them requires a strong experience that will change the psychology of those involved.
Such experience is provided by open and deep direct encounter with ‘the other,’ encounter that is able to counteract prejudices and reveal the humanity masked by them. Not every type of encounter will lead to the desired result. For example, experience shows that debating historical narratives and political views often leads to despair about the possibility of ever reaching agreement. So it worsens relations.
On the other hand, research shows that active interfaith dialogue has a profound impact on those who participate in it and leads to replacing mistrust and fear with mutual understanding, respect, and trust. This impact results from three essential qualities of the interfaith encounter:
- It takes the conversation to a deeper, existentially meaningful, level that makes the encounter much more intimate.
- It reveals to new participants the many similarities between the traditions.
- It enables exploration of the differences between the traditions in a way that not only does not threaten the conversation but helps construct it. Thus participants train themselves to develop friendships with people they disagree with.
Shifting the focus away from politics allows people from all part of the political spectrum to participate. In the Holy Land, where nearly all people are connected one way or another with their particular tradition, this approach also enables us to successfully recruit people from the entire religious-secular range.
An additional component of this approach is going beyond a one-time encounter or a short series of encounters to put together a framework that nourishes ongoing dialogue and inter-communal relations cultivation. For that purpose, we’ve developed interfaith encounter groups that bring together neighboring communities. They provide an extremely rare opportunity for encounter in the segregated reality of the Holy Land. Groups build their social circle of friends, proving that, unlike what many think, it is possible for Holy Land Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze to have mutual relationships that are both friendly and respect the unique identity of each.
Finally, the group functions as an active agent for transforming the overall pattern of inter-communal relations where they live. The first of IEA’s multi-neighborhood groups was formed in December 2001, just a few months after the organization was registered.
IEA’s vision is to maintain a wide variety of groups, hundreds and thousands of groups, so that every person will have an appropriate group in reach that is close to his or her home and heart.
1400 Programs and 49 Community Groups
In 11 years the IEA has held more than 1400 programs with tens of thousands of participants. As noted, participants in IEA programs include people from all political and religious views, all ages, genders, and walks of life. The vast majority of them have met ‘the other’ for the first time through IEA.
To date, the IEA has founded 49 ongoing community-groups of interfaith encounter reaching from Upper Galilee to Eilat. This includes 14 groups that regularly bring together Israelis and West Bank Palestinians. Among the 14, we maintain six groups in Israel that bring together Palestinians with Settlers – the only encounters of their kind.
Some IEA groups are open to everyone. Others are specifically for young adults or women, for educators, religious leaders, or midwives, and so on.
For its work the IEA has been recognized by UNESCO as “an organization that promotes the culture of peace” and was awarded the 2006 Prize for Humanity by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation. In 2007, two of IEA’s coordinators won the Women’s Peace Initiative Award of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, and the IEA was the recipient of the 2007 “INTR°A-Project Award for the Complementation of Religions” from the Institute for Interreligious Studies in Germany.
The film “Interfaith Encounter in the Galilee,” produced by IEA to present the work of its school-twinning project, was awarded the World Peace Film Award 2007 by the World Movement for Global Democracy. In May 2008, the IEA was one of the sixty projects selected as “the entrepreneurial projects that will change the face of Tomorrow” presented at the Israeli Presidential Conference, one of only eleven social projects, and the only project promoting peaceful coexistence.