Middle Peace for the Middle-East
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 2, 2014

Later today, at 2pm over at the Vestal United Methodist church, the Children of Abraham are hosting a lecture and discussion on the topic: “Interreligious Dialogue, in Binghamton, Israel, Palestine, and the region.” The speaker, Rabbi Ron Kronish, is and international speaker on the topic of peace. He leads conversations and programs in Jerusalem and around the world. He has been talking recently about the “Other Peace Process.” He is a strong supporter of the political efforts the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and others around the world working for middle-east peace.

He is not a politician and does not wade very far into the politics of the work. Instead, he is focused on the other peace process. Ron Kronish’s peace process is to bring “people from different religions and nationalities together to encounter each other substantively and sensitively in order to find ways to live in peaceful coexistence together.”

Kronish’s work reminds me of the quote from Catholic theologian Hans Kung: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions”

In an interview from 2012, Ron Kronish said,

In our interreligious work in Israel, we have been connecting people through dialogue and educational programmes for many years. We bring together religious leaders, educators, women, youth and young adults for long-term (at least 10 months and sometimes for up to 4 years) substantive and sensitive encounters with each other. All our programmes share four stages: 1) getting to know the other well as a human being, created in the Divine Image, 2) studying each other’s sacred texts, 3) discussing core issues of the conflict and 4) taking action in our communities, separately and together.
[from an article, The “other peace process” in Common Ground News]

He says that people are surprised sometimes to hear stories of hope coming out of the region. He and others he works with are hopeful that a peace agreement can be reached between Israel and Palestine. He cites other seemingly hopeless conflicts that have ended as evidence that it is not impossible: Northern Ireland, South Africa and Bosnia. “We have to keep this vision of peace alive,” he says, “and not despair because achieving peace is taking so long.” (Ibid)

Ron Kronish is the founder and Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. He is an excellent person for Childen of Abraham to bring in as we wade into the tricky conversations. Kronish focuses not on the politics, but on the people. “A lasting peace is not a matter just for the politicians,” he claims. The deeper possibility is found in regular people coming together for interreligious and intercultural dialogue. That is what it will take for real change to come.

The politicians and diplomats do have their work to do, certainly. Papers and agreements and the macro-level problems of the region are real and significant. Just this week, for example, the United Nations voted to acknowledge the State of Palestine as sovereign over Gaza and the West Bank. There is broad support for the two-state option at the UN. While world leaders such as these have their work, the regular people like you and me have a different level of work. This is where Ron Kronish puts his energy. We have the task to “change the hearts and minds of the people on both sides of the conflict to be able to live in peaceful relations over the long haul.”

It is not a simple task. The Israeli and Palestinian people have many barriers in the way of meeting each other. The ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality is strongly fostered. The sides each claim the same piece of land and have two very different justifications for it. They have different cultures, economies, and religions. A recent five year study showed that Israeli and Palestinian texts books teach dramatically different versions of the same historical events, each side ignoring the other side’s perspective.

One article I read [From Palestinian and Israeli Citizens Bypass Their Governments in Search for Peace, by Evie Salomon] offered the first-hand accounts of two individuals who experienced a change of heart, one Israeli and one Palestinian. They each talk about being raised with messages encouraging them to dehumanize the other. They each talk about taking up arms by joining the Israeli army or a Palestinian militant group. They each talk about a change of heart they experienced.

Here is a little of Mohammad Dajani’s story: “I never looked at an Israeli as a human, I looked at them as the enemy that needs to be thrown out of my country,” Dajani said. “… That was an ‘us and them’ education that I had.”

Dajani continued working with Fatah for eight years until he noticed the leadership was riddled with corruption. Disappointed, he left … The real change occurred in 1993, when his father was diagnosed with cancer…

“I realized that the doctors in the hospital were not treating him as an Arab, they’re treating him as a patient,” Dajani said. “It helped me to look at Israelis in a more humanistic way.”

A few months after his father’s death in 1995, Dajani’s second transformative experience occurred, when his mother suffered a heart attack while the family was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Panicked, Dajani’s brother made a quick decision to take the Ben Gurion Airport exit to seek help.

“I was very skeptical they would give help because she is Arab and they are Jews and it was security, but immediately they cleared one of the security gates and called two ambulances and they started operating on her there,” Dajani said.

…“These experiences have helped me move from ‘us or them’ to ‘us and them.’”

Dajani went on to found a political and social organization that uses the Koran’s teachings to promote balance and negotiation rather than religious extremism. And here is a little of Adi Mazor’s story:
Upon turning 18, she enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), just as her father had done… “I loved the army, I was very proud of myself that I’m in a combat unit, serving my country,” she said.

…While patrolling at a checkpoint at the separation wall … she was ordered to toss a stun grenade at children throwing stones. Although Mazor didn’t see any rock throwing, she obeyed the command.

“At first, I was very proud of myself,” she said. “It was the first stun grenade I was throwing as a soldier. I looked at the pin and I said, ‘Wow, this is a nice souvenir of what I just did, I should keep it.’”

But pride quickly turned to guilt.

“I was back in the Hummer and suddenly I saw the faces of the Palestinians from the other side,” she said. “They were so shocked and scared of what I did, and suddenly I was so ashamed. I looked at the pin again and I threw it out the window.”

It was then Mazor realized she was no longer the “good guy” in the story she’d learned growing up… Now 30, Mazor is a member of Breaking the Silence, a network of former Israeli combat soldiers whose goal is to expose Israeli citizens to the realities of West Bank occupation.

Over the past ten years, as the violence and tension and trouble has increase, so has the number of groups working to build a better way. In the midst of the terror and the bombs and the rockets, there are rays of hope, people gathering to build peace. Dozens of NGOs have begun popping up in the region; some of them run by Palestinians, some by Israelis and some are partnerships between the two. Each of these three categories are necessary to make the kinds of changes and reach the kinds of people needed for peace to grow. Israeli and Palestinian people working to dismantle the structures of violence and injustice through whatever means are at their disposal. We rarely hear about the efforts or their successes.

There are legal organizations working to support justice as well as business organizations advocating for a two-state solution for economic reasons. There are activist groups formed by former combatants and other formed by people who have lost family members to the violence. There is a chain of four Arab-Israeli schools called “Hand in Hand” that teach both Arabic and Hebrew. There are theater groups, such as “The Freedom Theatre,” and music programs, such as “Heartbeat,” using art to build bridges. “New Vision” uses graphic novels and other forms of creative media to highlight the efforts of Palestinian and Israeli activists who are nonviolently working to build a future of freedom, dignity, equality and human security.

Countless non-violent groups are actively working for peace. Did you know that? Did you know there were so many groups and individuals working for peace from inside Israel and Palestine? And we won’t hear about it in the usual news media. Yes the situation between Israel and Palestine is daunting and seems impossible, but there are many stories of hope and possibility.

And all of that brings me back around to the Children of Abraham lecture and discussion happening across town later this afternoon. There is a local component to this conversation. The reality is that Israel and Palestine are far across the ocean and have been in turmoil since before I was born. I willingly admit that the conflict has not been central in my thoughts, barely even peripheral. But over the past few years I have developed deeper relationships with people of Muslim and Jewish faith as well as people who are from or have family back in the Middle-East. Slowly this conflict has become more than just an abstract news story for me.

Several years ago a handful of clergy and laypeople gathered to create the Children of Abraham here in Binghamton, NY. The focus of the group has been to build mutual respect and understanding among believers of the three monotheistic religions. The first program was in May 2009 at the Islamic Center and it drew nearly 200 people. I was not involved in that first event, but I became involved over the course of the next year and have been involved ever since.

One of the goals of the Children of Abraham is to help people become ambassadors of religious peace and understanding; to encourage and empower more people in the Broome County region to see themselves as ambassadors of religious peace and understanding.

This year’s program was a bit of a stretch for us. We had been avoiding politics and hot button issues in favor of establishing and building relationships with each other and out in the community. Our topics have been about respecting the other, interfaith dialogue, and hearing our common stories. In preparing for this year’s topic: “Interreligious Dialogue, in Binghamton, Israel, Palestine, and the region,” we felt we had built up sufficient relationship to open this topic with each other.

This summer’s violence and strife put some of the religious leaders here in Binghamton in a difficult position regarding this topic. The event planners had a meeting in mid-September to consider cancelling. They decided to meet here in our building for that conversation because we Unitarian Universalists are considered neutral and open ground. So we gathered to consider what we would do about the trouble brewing for some among us. The purpose of our group, you may recall, is to build relationships and mutual understanding. If hosting this speaker would cause strife within the Muslim or Jewish communities I was certainly not willing to participate. I was among the initial advocates for cancelling unless we could find a way forward that didn’t put our relationships at risk.

Obviously we found a way forward because the event is happening. We shifted our expectations of how each religious community would endorse the program and asked our speaker for support in framing the circle discussions after his talk. This may seem like minor changes, and in a way it is. What really happened is that we all sat in a room and talked with each other. That’s the piece that really made it so we could move forward. We sat down and listened to each other.

If there is to be peace in the middle-east, it will begin with people seriously listening to each other. Issues of rockets and property, political positions and ideology all weigh heavy in the effort toward peace. The way forward will certainly involve politicians and activists, advocacy and witness. But it will also need a strong base of individuals who have gathered in groups to listen to each other, to hear each other, and find a way forward together.

Even here in Binghamton; even here there are things to gain, steps toward peace that are not insignificant that we can make. Let us do our part. Let us do what we can to move our corner of the world a few steps closer to peace.

In a world without end
May it be so.