Yes to dialogue, even in tough times

Ordinary people are not all cut from the same cloth, so maybe talking to Palestinian Arabs who do not want terror to ruin all our lives can help. The IEA tries to do just that.

Yehuda Stolov,

OpEds Yehuda Stolov
Yehuda Stolov

When a rare calm reigns in the Holy Land, it is a good time for Muslims and Jews to relax and discuss the beautiful commonalities of our respective religions. For example, everyone who studied tractate Rosh Hashana may be surprised to learn that in Islam, even today, the new month is determined only after two witnesses testify in court, which then declares the new month.

The shock of recognition is always welcome, especially when strong bridges are built among peoples who share much in common and really should have avenues of talk. The Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) is part of this effort.

Calm, of course, does not reign. Terrorists stab and ram into people with their cars. Gun shots fire, suspicion mounts, we mourn our dead and cry for the bereaved, we lose heart - maybe they all hate us after all. What is the use, let's arm ourselves and wait the next ambush, closing our eyes to the possibility of those among the Muslim population that want a better life also.

I was determined to keep the doors open even at tough times. I was often the lone wolf, as even close family members would say, "Yehuda, drop it already, you will go to the next meeting and who knows what danger you put yourself in! An Arab can wake up in the morning hating you even if he was friends with you yesterday." It was a lonely decision but I kept it up. The IEA continued to host encounters even at the height of the intifada of 2000 – 2004, as well as at times of fighting in Gaza and Lebanon. True, fewer attendees were present, but we talked, danced, and parted with blessings of “may we meet next time in peace”. Nine ongoing encounter groups were formed during the intifada years, holding some two hundred gatherings. It was worth the effort.
The above can be seen in the light of interfaith “cooperation” instead of “dialogue”, a term which can imply that our basic tenets are open to debate. They are not.

I need to explain here the mission of the IEA. Not everyone is comfortable with the term "interfaith". Some feel it spells mixing religions and losing our integrity. Or, that is what the liberals do, so it is not for the traditional. Some consider it self-betrayal, involving cover-ups when subjects veer to the controversial. Others feel that the very act of sitting as equals in discussion with Muslims is dangerously misleading, putting our chosenness and distinctiveness into question, plus risking too much social mixing that may lead to intermarriage. Therefore, the very name may turn people off, so bear with me while I explain.

Indeed, there are interfaith approaches that dilute uniqueness for the sake of commonalities, but the Interfaith Encounter approach is not one of them. In our approach, we encourage everyone to fully share what he or she believes in openly and sincerely – be it the chosenness of the Nation of Israel or the need for everyone to convert to Islam. No limitations are put on what you express. However, we encourage participants to pay attention to how they express what they believe in, so that it will not be offensive to the 'other' and can be listened to by them.

We do not seek agreement between people, but respectful understanding of each other's views and friendly disagreement when they are different. In this way, not only are religions not mixed, but the unique identity of each is made clearer and is respected. Moreover, this approach continuously develops channels of conversation between Jews and Muslims, which is essential for Jews who see being a “light unto the nations” as being able to relate in an informed way to others and teach.

But Jews are not here only to teach non-Jews. Rabbi Kook writes in his book, Midot Raih, in his essay “Love” (my translation): “Love of creatures should be living in the heart and the soul, the love of all mankind in particular, and the love for all nations, the desire for their ascent and revival – spiritually and materially. Hatred should be directed only towards the evil and filth of the world. The right way is to fully understand the various nations and communities, as much as possible to study their character and qualities, in order to know how to base human love on practical foundations.”

This is especially true for the Arabs among us, about who Rabbi Kook rules in his Mishpat Kohen 61 that they are Ger Toshav ”foreign residents” – non-Jews who live in the Land of Israel and observe the seven laws of Noach. Of course, that  term is only applicable if they live in peace.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his famous paper "Confrontation", 1964, talked of the necessity for dialogue that touches upon universal challenges, and in turn puts conditions and limits upon dialogue with non-Jews. One – Jews will not be pressured to concede that their scriptures have been superseded. Two – based upon the assumption that theological concepts in each faith community cannot be fully understood by the other, doctrine will not be the subject of debate; unique doctrines of each community may be presented, but debate is strictly forbidden. Instead, the more universal concerns of each faith community will be discussed. Three – Non-interference:  no faith community will suggest changes to the other concerning ritual or text, and missionizing will not be tolerated.

The above can be seen in the light of interfaith “cooperation” instead of “dialogue”, a term which can imply that our basic tenets are open to debate. They are not. It is the term “dialogue” that connotes a certain crossing of boundaries which both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Solvietchik forbid outright. This is more than just the need for self-preservation, but the reality, as Rav Soloveitchik asserts, that we cannot import and export religious terms across faith communities. What one faith means by the terms it uses may be understood completely differently by members of another faith. Thus our real common language remains what we can achieve for the common good. The seven Noachide laws serve as the backbone of understanding the common good.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s student Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi of Efrat, states in his article "Jewish-Christian Dialogue: New Thinking" in Musaf Shabbat of Makor Rishon 17.5.12, states that all of the above conditions were fulfilled by the Nostra Aetate statement which was published by the Vatican a year and half later. When Rabbi Riskin was criticized for his work with Christians, it was Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Rabbi of yishuv Har Beracha, who published in his Revivim column in Besheva an article praising Rabbi Riskin for taking upon himself the holy task of bringing the gentiles closer to the Jewish faith, hastening the Geula process, and trying to wean them from anti-Semitism. Rabbi Melamed further quotes Rabbi Kook who wrote that it is unacceptable to express the fine qualities of our religious traditions while at the same time expressing insult to founders of other religions, whoever they are. We need only stress our greatest treasure - the Torah. In other words, we should exercise the respect that will enable dialogue, while at the same time fully expressing our faith. This is what we try to do in the IEA.  

I take a lot of encouragement for my work in the IEA from the above concepts. I believe that an important part of the return of the nation of Israel from the periphery of the stage of history to its center is the need to develop channels of communication with the other nations, and that this has to start with our immediate neighbors.

You may be asking, do these encounters help the situation on the ground? I think they do! Here are some examples.

One of our groups connects two communities that often experience friction. In the beginning of the current wave of terrorist violence there were clashes right where the group normally meets. Thanks to the communication between the two parts of the group - they were able to each exercise their influence and significantly reduce the tension.

One of our Israeli-Palestinian groups was able to realize a retreat in the desert. On their way there, the Palestinians passed many checkpoints of the army and usually they just mentioned the next town as their next destination. But in one checkpoint they stated the actual goal of their trip. The soldier burst in laughing and could not stop, sharing the "joke" with his friends who started laughing too. But it was not a joke and the retreat indeed happen in very warm atmosphere of friends who missed each other and were happy to meet again. When they came to conclude, the Palestinian participants asked the Israeli ones to share with their friends their experience of meeting Palestinians who reject violence and want to live in peace. The Israelis in return asked their Palestinian colleagues to share with their friends the fact they know that settlers do not want to see even one Palestinian hurt and share the desire for true peace.

In good times and in tough, the IEA continues its efforts to create ever increasing seeds of positive inter-communal relations characterized by mutual understanding, respect and trust. We have formed seventy three groups of monthly interfaith encounter meetings – from the upper Galilee to Eilat and from Tel Aviv to Jericho. They are composed of young adults, men, women, educators, professionals, rabbis and sheikhs, yeshiva students, Palestinians, and more. Our aim is to create hundreds, even thousands, of a wide variety of gatherings, so that every person will have a group that is both close to his/her home and close to heart. You are all welcome to join!

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