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Reconciliation and peace-building in israel—the role of religion and interreligious dialogue

By Dr. Ron Kronish, rabbi(November 8, 2002 Lecture to the People of Ayabe, Japan)


Thank you. It’s good to be here today in the city of Ayabe, a sister city of Jerusalem. I am honored by the opportunity to visit with you in Japan, after the members of the Oomoto community visit us in Jerusalem a few years ago.

I will divide my talk today into three parts:

The political context – the search for peace in Israel and the world
Interreligious relations in Israel in light of the ongoing crisis in our region—what are we doing in view of the escalating conflict?
1) Interfaith relations—Jews, Christians and Muslims
2) Arab-Jewish relations
  • Towards the future—what should be the role of interreligious and intercultural dialogue in Israel? What can be the role in the years and decades ahead?

I. The political climate—the search for peace in Israel and in the world.

How do we search for peace? What is our role as religious leaders?

Along with some members of Oomoto, I was privileged to be at the Vatican and at the day of prayer for world peace in Assisi last January, at the invitation of the Pope. More than 200 religious leaders from 12 major world religions gathered in Assisi to pray for peace and to renew our commitment to working for peace. It was a remarkably inspiring occasion. At the end of the day we committed ourselves to a 10-point program for working for peace.

I thought to myself, as I was preparing for this talk, how poignant it is that the Pope chose 10 commitments, parallel to the 10 Commandments which can be found in the Torah, which is the book of books for the Jewish people.

In addition, I wish to point out that the world day of prayer in Assisi, was preceded earlier in the week last January by another important meeting – perhaps even more important than the one in Assisi. In Alexandria, Egypt.a small group of high-ranking religious leaders -- Jews, Christians and Muslims -- came together for two days, under the patronage and moderation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. They entered into a serious historic dialogue in an attempt to make a clarion call against violence and for a return to the path of negotiations for peace. This intiative was supported not only by the governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but also by that of Egypt, which provided the venue for the gathering. The leaders adopted an important seven-point statement (seven is a good round number for wholeness, and perhaps for shalom), the seventh point of which is most important since it calls for the continuation of this dialogue.

We can only hope that the Alexandria declaration will be the new beginning of an era in which religions – and religious leaders – can play a much more constructive role in peace-building than in the past in our part of the world, and that it will send positive signals about the role of religion in promoting peace throughout the respective societies in the region. Indeed, at a meeting in London last month the leaders of the Alexandria process recommitted themselves to working for the end of violence in Israel and Palestine and for peace and reconciliation.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, we are in a new situation. New for Americans. Old for Israel. Very complicated. With no clear or simple answers as to how to deal with this situation, or how to keep hope alive, in the midst of so much darkness and violence. It seems to me this is the critical challenge that we all face

Since Sept. 11, we have become one human family. We are interrlated and interconnected, as never before. Not only Americans were attacked on Sept. 11, and not just Jews. But people from around the world, of every religion and race, of every creed and color .

Nevertheless – I speak here as a Jew – it seems to me that we Jews have felt particularly threatened since Osama Bin Laden linked the attacks on America to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Somehow, we are at the heart of the matter, once again, as we were during the Gulf War 11 years ago.

The was much good news and much optimism in Israel until about a year ago. We thought we were on the road to peace. It seemed to many of us in Israel that we were closer to peace with our Arab neighbors than ever before. In August 2000, at Camp David, our prime minister was talking about “the end of the conflict”. And we in Israel were getting ready for a new era of peace and security in our region.

Prior to this, we had made peace agreements with:

*The Palestinians—Oslo I and II, the Wye Agreement, the Hebron Agreement, and probably more to come
Syria—We have negotiations with the Syrian government from time to time.

Only a year and a half ago, we actually conceived of the real possibility of signing peace agreements with all of our Arab neighbors, particulary with the Palestinians. Amazing! We thought that it could all happen in our lifetime. And it still should be possible, although this sounds remote at this moment.

All of that collapsed – or is in severe trouble – since the beginning of the mini-war, which began at the end of September 2000, just after the Jewish New Year began.

Nevertheless, I believe that we must continue to pray and act for peace. This current impasse will end – sooner or later – and we will return to the path of dialogue and negotiations. Ultimately, there will be no other reasonable choice.

We must not despair of peace. We need to resist despair and depression with all of our strength, with all the resources – financial and spiritual – that we can muster. Rather, even in these times of darkness, we need to try to find some light at the end of the tunnel (and not the light of the oncoming train!).

We must continue – despite everything – to sustain a vision of shalom and to work towards it in whatever ways we can.

Therefore, my first message for you today is: Do not despair. Do not lose hope!

In our Jewish national anthem, we say, “od lo avdah tikvateinu” – “our hope is not lost!” We Jews are the nation of hope, of hatikvah. We are the people who created the messianic idea, the idea that the future could and will be better than the past

I am not a politician. So I will leave politics to the politicians. Rather, I suggest that the key question now, and for the future, is: How will we move from peace agreements – of which we already have many, with probably more to come sooner or later (probably later, unfortunately) – to peaceful relations between peoples (Israelis) and people (Palestinians)? Between Arabs and Jews, between Jews, Christians and Muslims in the land of Israel and Palestine, which we share?

There is no simple answer to this. But we must begin where we can. This, in fact, is what we have done.

II. What do we do, and how do we do it?

The nature of interrelations and intercultural relations in Israel.

For the past 11 years, within the the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) we have been promoting peaceful relations between people. We have developed new and unique interfaith dialogues whose overarching goal is to be in the service of peace and reconciliation. Not dialogue for dialogue’s sake. But dialogue that will work towards a new culture of peace – and peaceful relations—that is so desperately needed in our part of the world.

Our interreligious council was founded 11 years ago, on Jan. 16, 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War. With gas masks in hand, 23 people assembled in the basement of the Ratisbonne Seminary, in the center of Jerusalem, to form a new coalition. Now, 11 years later, we have 73 member organizations – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – from all over Israel, involving hundreds, and perhaps even thousands of people, via various networks, in a wide variety of programs to promote mutual understanding and education among the members of the major faith communities and national groups in our country and our region, Jews and Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Christians.

We are a well-kept secret. You probably have never heard of us. We have only been in the newspapers from time to time. And you don’t see us much on the nightly news – not on CNN or BBC or other major networks. Why?

We don’t kill any one! And, thank God, we haven’t engaged in any scandals. Therefore, we don’t make the news much.

And, no doubt, many of you will be surprised by much of what I will to tell you today, which is why we will have a question and answer session after my presentation.

I come today to share my personal experiences and reflections with you, as someone who is committed personally and professionally to the task of reconciliationand education for peace among peoples and religious communities that share the same land.

My main message to you today – which is the same message that we recommitted to with the Pope in Assisi last January is: Religion can and should be used in the service of peace, not in the service of violence and terrorism, or war or occupation.

We need to encounter the divine image in the other – we are all children of the one God!

How do we do it?

* By promoting dialogue, not destruction

  • By fostering coaltions and cooperation, not confrontation
  • By building genuine relationships, based on mutual trust
  • By engaging in common action projects for the good of all concerned, such as preserving the environment in the land of Israel, which we all share (we all drink the same water and walk in the same valleys.).
  • By learning each other’s sacred texts in a spirit of open inquiry and sharing in carefully facilitated dialogue groups

Some examples:

Dialogue groups:

  • We have the only sustained Jewish-Christian dialogue group in Israel/Palestine, which we call the “Jonah Group.” The Lutheran Palestinian bishop in Jerusalem (Bishop Munibyounan) and I co-lead the group. We bring Palestinian Christian clergy and educators together with Israeli Jewish clergy and educators, to study each others’ sacred texts and to form a network of caring and compassion on issues of common concern. One of the fruits of our dialogue, which has led to a relationship of friendship and trust over many years, has been an ongoing dialogue that is expanding each year.

We are now in the middle of the third year of our Jewish-Muslim dialogue. Not only do we meet together once a month to learn what each other’s traditions have to say about complicated controversial issues – such as war and peace, jihad and martrydom-- but we also go public by holding public Jewish-Muslim dialogues at a major center in Jerusalem – the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center of Mishkenot Sha’Ananim – on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Since we are often accused of “preaching to the choir,” we appear publicly – even in Jerusalem – to try to get the message out there, in the general public. For example, on Oct. 25, 2001, we hosted Sheikh Nimr Darweish, the founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic movement in Israel, and Rabbi Shear Yeshuv Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, on “How our traditions can be an inspiration for peace, rather than for war.” In November 2001, Muhammed Hourani and Rabbi Naftali Rutenberg spoke out on “Martyrdom in Judaism and in Islam,” and on Dec. 20, 2001, two other speakers spoke about the question of holy war, or war of obligation, in our respective traditions. (These Jewish-Muslim dialogues are funded by grants from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany, and the Abraham Fund of New York)

  • Another area in which we work is called “education for peace and reconciliation” -- changing the hearts and minds of the people. For three years, from 1995-1998, we conducted seminars with the Palestinian Peace and Information Service, led by Ziad Abu Ziad, now a member of the Palestinian Parliament, on “Educating for peace – past, present and future.” And during 2001, we sponsored workshops in February and June with 30 peace and coexistence groups from all over Israel.
  • We have begun a new women’s dialogue program, with Palestinian and Israeli women—Jews, Christians and Muslims—the first of its kind in Israel/Palestine. Each month more women sign up. It is a small sign of hope for the future.
  • Religions and the environment. On Oct. 30, 2000, for the first time in Israel – over 100 Jews, Muslims and Christians came together to learn each other’s sources about caring for God’s earth and to consider ways and means of working together for the betterment of the environment of the holy land which we all share. This took place less than a month after the rioting that broke out in Israel and in the Palestine Authority, under the name of the “Al-Aksa Intifada.” Last year—again on Oct. 30 – we hosted our second annual conference. The theme was “Environmental Ethics Justice.” Again more than 100 Jews, Christians and Muslims from all over Israel took part. We have already begun planning our third annual conference, to take place later this year
  • Educating about each other. We have begun new educational initiatives to enrich our understanding of one another. Such as a new teacher-training course co-sponsored by the Schechter Institute for Judaic Studies and ICCI, on “Common Values/Different Sources” in Jewish, Muslim and Christian texts. Fifteen Jewish and Arab educators from the Jerusalem area met regularly for 15 weeks in a new pilot program on this theme. The program has been such a success that requests to replicate it in different parts of Israel are coming from Jewish and Arab institutions and programs that bring Israeli Arabs and Jews together. And we are beginning a new course this year.

I share these concrete examples with you to give you the sense that we do all this – and much more – because we believe that we need to keep hope alive, and we refuse to give in to despair by doing nothing.

III. Towards the future

My father, Rabbi Leon Kronish, of blessed memory, who was a rabbi for 54 years at Temple Beth Shalom in Miami Beach, Florida, in the southern United States always used to respond to the simple question “How are you?” With the answer: “yehiyeh tov”. “It will be good”. The future will be better than the past.

He believed deeply in Israel’s mission as the fulfillment of messianic redemption. And so do I. I inherited this legacy, this optimism, from him.

And so I tell you today: Despite the current difficulties and obstacles in the political peace process – and there are many of them – I believe that the process will work itself out, i.e., there will be a political solution, sooner or later between Israel and the Palestinians (and all the Arab states).

There will be a two state solution: Israel and Palestine, side by side. This is the new unfolding reality that is coming about, slowly and painfully.

And then what? What will we do then? Will we be prepared for the next steps?

What will be needed in the future?

The answer, I believe, will be the need for a massive educational campaign to change the hearts and minds of the people, on both sides. A “Marshall” plan (or maybe a “Clinton” plan? Or a “Bush” plan?) which will educate the next generations for the existential need to learn to live together.

This will not be easy. Nor will it be quick.

But it will soon become the historical and educational imperative of the new era.

We will have no choice but to bring people together to learn to live in peace:

  • Rabbis, immams, Christian clergy (as was recently done in the historic Alexandria meeting of religious leaders from Israel and Palestine a few weeks ago).
  • Teachers, educators, headmasters, principals
  • Youth movement ledaers, informal educators in a wide variety of settings, such as community centers, institutes, camps (such as the wonderful “Seeds of Peace” camp, which meets in Maine every summer and now has hundreds of graduates all of the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan and Palestine, and in many other countries.
  • New text books, which will stop educating by ideological indoctrination but by truth and reconciliation.

I believe that those of us in interrelgious dialogue in Israel and the region will have a major role to play in this process. And, relgious leaders from abroad –Jewish, Christian and Muslim-- will also be called upon to help.

You too will be called upon to support these processes as well, if you believe in the potential of peace and the great benefits it can bring to all of us.

Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish — a rabbi and educator—serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI)
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