by Yehuda Stolov
In this article I intend to discuss ways of overcoming Arab anti-Semitism and Israeli Arab-phobia and Islamo-phobia. I believe that my comments are relevant for a large variety of conflict contexts. My experience and knowledge come from the Middle East, from the Holy Land, and I will focus on this part of the world.
The nature of this experience leads to a second point. This article is based on many years of practical experience in using the approach it portrays, in active work for the building of human peace (between human beings and not just leaderships and politicians) in the Holy Land and the Middle East through interactive interfaith dialogue, mainly in the framework of the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) (www.interfaith-encounter.org). The ideas in it were not developed in an abstract way, as theoretical concepts, but as an ideological infrastructure for action. They have supplied the basis for IEA activities and are constantly going through intensive field testing in hundreds of events with thousands of people. The ideas are supported by concrete successes on the ground.
The third point of introduction is also derived from the nature of my experience. Prejudices and fears, mistrust and even hatred exist between Jews and Arabs, or as we prefer to look at them: between Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze. Yet regardless of other factors that are probably very important when analyzing these phenomena, the main factor that makes it possible for these negative attitudes to prevail is ignorance — both in the sense of knowing very little, if at all, about the “other” and in the sense of ignoring the “other.” Consequently, getting to know each other in a deep and positive manner is the way to prevent the possibility of these phenomena. My main focus — in my work, in my life and in this article — is on how this can be done in a most effective way, through interactive interfaith encounter.
Finally, an introductory word about religion: the human desire for better connection with the Divine (or whatever one chooses to call this super-reality, which is beyond words anyway) and for meaning in and of life is a very powerful force. The different paths in this quest are organized in what we call religions, which makes religions a very powerful force with an ability to influence humans and to mobilize them to make and take more out of themselves and go beyond where they would otherwise go. Being a very powerful force by itself does not make religion good or bad. Like the less powerful forces, it can be both used and misused. What makes the difference between the two is the human who works with the force — as the Jewish sages of the Talmud say: “If he is worthy, the Torah becomes for him a drug of life; if he is not, it becomes for him a drug of death.”
How Do We Overcome Prejudices and Fears?
So how do we make sure that religion is for us, and others, “a drug of life”? And how do we overcome the prejudices, fears and even hatreds, and replace them with respect, trust and even friendship? It is beyond the scope of this article to describe in detail that, at least for the Abrahamic religions, the second question is really part of the first. I will just say that as all of these religions claim to lead humanity in its quest to God — it is clear that religious leaders have to overcome prejudices and fears and to build respect and trust in order for their leadership to be effective. For me, the answer to both questions is by being engaged in intensive interfaith encounter.
Getting to know each other at a joint workshop
But who says that this answer is the correct one? Experience does. Negative attitudes towards the “other” have important root causes, but, at least in the case of the Holy Land, there is one factor that makes it possible for these causes to induce the negative attitudes, and without this factor they would just disappear. This is very similar to the fact that, despite the root cause of the force of gravitation, the computer I use for the writing of this article does not fall down to the floor when there is a table beneath it. In our activities of the IEA we find again and again that, in the case of the human relations in the Holy Land, the equivalent for the lack of a table is the lack of real knowledge of the other, simply ignorance. Profound understanding of the other opens the door for mutual respect, trust and even friendship — despite the disagreements that continue to exist.
Imagine a group of Muslim and Christian Palestinians coming from Nablus, Ramallah or Bethlehem, to meet a group of Israelis in an interfaith encounter. Most of these people, in both groups, have never met the other before, and nearly all their knowledge about the other comes from the media. During the height of the second intifada that meant that they “knew” for sure only one thing: that the other was trying, or at least dreaming, of killing them. Still, when they agree to follow the guidelines of the interfaith encounter, they go through the process of discovering the humanity of the other through a deep and sincere discovery of the other’s religion and culture. It is amazing to see how quickly they connect, how fast they actually overcome prejudices and fears and replace them with respect and friendship. At the end of the second day, after they have met each other, taken part in two thematic conversations and witnessed the Muslim and Jewish prayers, they all sing and dance together, or tell jokes at a social evening. When the time comes to bid farewell on the third day, they hug each other with tears and wish the next encounter would come rapidly.
The relations that were built have survived, in many cases that we know of, even some very difficult challenges that, unfortunately, were not rare in the last few years. In the context of our conflict, I believe that it is very encouraging to realize that once we overcome the ignorance between the different groups, we build a barrier that does not allow the root causes to induce prejudices, fears and hatred. Another optimistic thought is that if the fears and hatred can be overcome so easily — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is probably not as deeply rooted as we think.
Describing the Process
How does it actually work? What is the content of the process? What is its framework? The content is composed mainly of interactive interfaith dialogue. It is important to stress that in the case of IEA, interfaith dialogue is not our goal but our vehicle to achieve the goal of true coexistence. We find that our work to overcome the conflict is most effective when we do not discuss the conflict. Instead, when we come together we encounter each other — whether religious or not — through the aspect of our respective religious traditions. As an alternative to political discourse — which very often tends to be very superficial and divisive — we offer the interactive inter-religious discourse, which gives a lot of space for relaxed exchange between participants and is very effective in supplying the deep and positive interaction that is needed to overcome the attitude of ignorance. It invites its participants, religious or not, to come to the conversation from a deeper place in themselves. It reveals many similarities between the different traditions, which creates a basis for a sense of connection. But perhaps most important: it allows for a sincere joint conversation about the differences, and in this way its participants train themselves to accept the other as “an other” — someone who is different. In this way we promote our ability to develop friendships that are not conditioned by agreement.
In terms of framework we work with two main models. The first model can be described as a kind of positive shock treatment. Participants come together for two or three days of very concentrated encounter with the other, away from their homes. During these days of intensive encounter they engage in long and deep conversations about the perspectives of the different traditions on the theme selected for the retreat, they have the chance to witness the prayer of the other and sincerely share their views, feelings and deliberations. They also have the opportunity just to have fun together or chat informally on lawn or during meals. Through this encounter they overcome many of their misconceptions about the other and most of their negative attitudes. This model is a very powerful first exposure to the other and, in the current reality, in many cases is our only option.
The second model is the ongoing work of groups from different religious contexts in a given area or city, that come together for regular interfaith encounters with each other. The work of the group starts as a joint center for interfaith encounter but develops a strong sense of one community in its participants. This mini-community both exemplifies to the larger communities how it is possible to coexist in harmony with respect for each other’s unique identity, and as a growing seed of such relations that hopefully will grow to include the whole of the larger community.
Dialogue While the Occupation and Terrorism Continue?
Some may wonder: how is it possible for Palestinians to engage in relaxed dialogue while occupation continues and for Israelis to do the same when terrorism continues? We believe that this kind of work is the only way to overcome both in a sustainable way. In such a small land as the Holy Land, total separation between the two peoples is not a long-term option. Yes, it is possible to disengage here or build a wall there. It is even possible to use a window of opportunity to sign an agreement, named after this or that European city. But none of these moves, and no political arrangement, can ensure a sustainable and enduring end to occupation and terrorism, and their replacement by peace, without the real building of good relations between the two peoples. And when the respectful and friendly relations are built, political arrangements will be able to endure and ensure true peace between the two peoples.
To conclude: what I am saying is that by gaining true, deep and sincere knowledge about each other, we build in ourselves a “security fence” that, instead of separating us from one another, defends us against negative attitudes. What is left to peacefully develop in our hearts are mutual respect, friendship and love. These, in turn, will create room for a growing harmony between the communities and will build a solid foundation for the sustainability of future political agreements between them.