Published in Brandeis Review, Spring 1997

Understanding One Another in Israel

by Ron Kronish


The director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel reports from
Jerusalem on the progress being made, and the work yet to be done, in the
earnest and urgent efforts to educate about the other in Israeli society.

We live in separate worlds in Israel. Jews and Arabs tend to live in distinct communities with their own ways of life. Yet there is a large degree of pluralism within each group. Jews can be religious, secular, or traditional, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, sabras or immigrants. And Arabs can also be religious, secular, or traditional; they can be Christians, Muslims, or Druze; they are Israeli citizens and yet at the same time are part of the Palestinian people.
What do we really know about each other, we the communities that compose the two worlds of Israel? How much do we really care about knowing about each other? If we cared more, what would we need to do to try to learn about each other and to understand each other in a more serious and systematic way? What would we need to come to know about each other's religious identity (or lack thereof), about each other's approach to modern culture, to national identity, education, historiography, sociology, psychology?
In educating about the other in Israeli society, two spheres of educational work have functioned side by side for many years with very little interaction. One is known as Interreligious/Interfaith Relations and the other has been labeled Education for Arab-Jewish Coexistence. What are some of our underlying assumptions in each realm of educational activity? And where and when, if ever, do these two disparate realms of educational endeavor interact and overlap in Israeli society?

lnterreligious Relations in Israel

I should like to highlight some of the most salient characteristics of the field of interreligious/ interfaith relations in Israel.
First of all, it is essential to point out that most of the "dialogue" between Jews and non-Jews in Israel is between Jews and Christians. It is done mostly by people from the West -- by representatives of Jewish organizations from the United States and other countries that have offices in Israel and by representatives of Christian churches and organizations from the United States and Europe.
Second, most of the "dialogue has dealt with theological, intellectual, spiritual, and historical issues, such as the roots of Christianity in Judaism and in the land of Israel, the Jewishness of Jesus, the history of Judaism and Christianity in the first centuries of the Common Era. This has involved Christian and Jewish scholars, as well as lay people, in the study of Jewish and Christian sources on common themes, such as creation, revelation, and redemption, and in the examination of each other's traditions, holidays, rituals, and holy places. The "dialogue," therefore, has largely been an "ivory tower" rather than a grass roots encounter.
Third, political issues have largely been avoided. The reason for this is simple: there is too much diversity and disagreement on political issues among Christians and Jews in Israel. Moreover, to focus on politics would inhibit or destroy whatever interreligious dialogue we have been able to develop in Israel over the past few decades, since the issues are highly controversial and sometimes even explosive. It appears to me that this has been a calculated strategy, especially in umbrella institutions such as the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, in order to allow for theological diversity and to permit dialogue to move forward.
Fourth, it is interesting to note that much of the dialogue between Christians and Jews in Israel takes place with visiting Jewish, Christian, and interfaith groups on such topics as "The Meaning of Israel to the Jewish People," "The Role of the State of Israel in Contemporary Jewish Life," "Zionism-Jewish and Christian Approaches," and "The Meaning of the Bible for Christians and Jews." This dialogue is often more open and piercing than internal dialogue since visitors to Israel ask all kinds of questions, including political and theological ones, and are less bound by local conventions and strategies.
Last, with regard to interreligious dialogue in Israel, I must report that very little dialogue has occurred with Muslims and with Islam in Israel so far. The reason for this, in my judgment, has been political, not religious. Political consciousness and security concerns have prevented this dialogue from moving forward. Nevertheless, there have been some very positive attempts at Jewish-Muslim dialogue during the past three years. At least three organizations in Jerusalem have begun such dialogues, including my own, and the results have been very encouraging. In fact, last year I was able to convene a highly successful Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue -- the first of its kind in Israel -- for five fruitful learning sessions on "Common Values/Different Sources." Through a special joint grant from two foundations in New York -- The Abraham Fund and the Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum Foundation -- 15 Jewish, Christian, and Muslim academics and educators in Israel not only learned from each other over the course of a year but produced invaluable papers and source materials, which we hope will be published in separate books in Hebrew, Arabic, and English for use in the Israeli educational system, in the Jewish and Arab sectors, and in educational institutions abroad. This is a very encouraging important new development in Israeli life, which bodes well for the future.

Education for Coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel

Education for coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel has been a separate field of educational endeavor in Israeli life. It has been led mostly by nonreligious or antireligious people; on the Jewish side by kibbutzniks and urban secular humanists, and on the Arab side by Christian and Muslim secularists and culturalists. It is characterized by a human relations approach, which focuses on psychological, social work, and educational methodologies. Educators working with this approach generally are interested in creating encounters between Arabs and Jews in Israel without addressing the "religious" dimensions of their identities -- either because they don't believe in "religion" or because they don't know much about it, or both.
Most of this pioneering educational work in Israel has not involved people from the West, at least not as much as in the interreligious arena, although it is often funded and catalyzed by western organizations and individuals functioning in Israel. It has mostly been a local Israeli grass roots phenomenon, addressing local needs and aspirations. Much of this work takes place in the Galilee, where coexistence of Arabs and Jews is part of a tangible, daily reality. Jews and Arabs in the Galilee live side by side, in separate towns and villages. Yet, there is more interaction and cooperation there than in Israel's urban centers.
Much of this educational work is part of the realm of informal education. It focuses more on feelings, process, and encounter rather than on information and knowledge. Instead of taking place n classrooms and schools, it is carried on in seminars and weekend retreats in informal educational institutes all over the country. Moreover, in avoiding religion, this approach has inevitably taken on a "national" character, i.e., two national groups Jews and Arabs (now it is more politically correct to say Palestinians" or "Palestinian Arabs") -- must come to grips with the issue of how to coexist side by side in the same state, and by extension in the same land and region.
While a few thousand people are reached per year in Israel, efforts at education for coexistence are still rather limited. Relatively few people in Israeli society have participated in any of these encounters or seminars. They are not part of the formal schooling for most Israeli youngsters as yet, except in rare circumstances, and they often happen just once in a lifetime, if at all, in the life of a Jewish or Arab young person in Israel. Nevertheless, one can point to a cumulative effect, a new gestalt that helps us to understand how Israeli Jews and Arabs live relatively peacefully together in he same country. It has helped to create an atmosphere of tolerance and at least "live-and-let-live" in Israel and it has engendered some feelings of some Jews and Arabs towards each other, even if not always accompanied by a great deal of knowledge as yet.

The Interaction of the Twin Fields of lnterreligious Relations and Education for Coexistence -- Developing a Multidisciplinary Approach to Educating about the Other

We in Israel who have been working in these two interrelated fields have seen a need to bring people from both disciplines together. Through the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel-an umbrella organization composed of 60 different organizations in Israeli life that work in both areas at understanding one another and at promoting good relations between people of different faiths and national communities in Israel -- we have been bringing Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims together for the past five years in seminars, conferences, workshops, dialogues, and think tanks. In doing so, we are developing a multidisciplinary approach to educating about the other in Israeli society. We have found that this comprehensive approach will need to bring at least six disciplines to bear on understanding the other in Israel:

Education: In the formal school system, we will need to examine what Jews are learning about Christianity and Islam as religions and cultures, with particular reference to how these are actually lived and practiced in Christian and Muslim Arab communities in Israel. In addition, we will need to discover and reconceptualize what Jews in Israel are learning about Arab culture in general and Palestinian Arab culture and nationalism in particular. Similarly, we will need to explore what Israeli Arabs are learning about Judaism, Jewish communities in Israel, Jewish culture, and the contemporary significance of Zionism, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel. We will also need to reflect on what is learned in the informal educational system that supplements formal schooling in Israel, including youth movements, seminar centers, and a wide variety of special institutes that sponsor informal encounters and extracurricular educational activities. What is learned about attitudes towards the other in these encounters? Do stereotypes change by meeting people face to face? How many Israeli Jews have ever visited churches or mosques or Israeli Arab towns or villages at all, and vice versa for Israeli Arabs visiting Jewish communities or synagogues?

Religion: What do we know about the ways in which Israelis understand each other's religion -- Judaism, Christianity, or Islam? What is the nature of religious pluralism within the different sectors of Israeli society? For example, do the Jewish citizens of Israel understand and appreciate the diversity within the Muslim community in our country, from the "religious fundamentalists" of the Islamic Movement to the Sufi pietists in the Islamic College in Baka-al-Gharbiyah to the secularists in Sakhnin and Nazareth? And within Christianity in Israel, are we sufficiently aware of the great variety of Christian groups in our midst, from the 13 historic indigenous churches, including churches from the East and the West, to the great variety of Protestant denominations that have come to Israel during the past 100 years?

Nationalism: We need to be more aware of the fact that the identities of Israeli Jews and Arabs (Christian as well as Muslim) are often more nationalistic than religious. For most Israeli Jews, the result of more than a century of Zionism is the normalization of a Jewish national identity that nowadays often overlaps greatly with a strong sense of Israeli national identity. For Israeli Arabs, while their citizenship is Israeli, their identity has become more and more Palestinian in recent years, especially with the escalation of the peace process, which has brought with it a new mutual recognition of Palestinian nationalism alongside Jewish nationalism in the land of Israel.

       Photo (not reprinted here): "About Each Other in the Era of Peace" seminar in Jerusalem on December 5-6, 1996.
         Top: Dan Bitan, CRB Foundation, and Bernard Sabella, Bethlehem University
         Bottom: Ron Kronish and Ziad Abu Zayyad, chair of the Palestinian Peace Information Center

         Photo: Geoffrey Wigoder, cochair of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, greeting
         Archbishop Andrea di Montezemolo, papal nuncio in Israel

History: Different groups within Israeli society and the region identify with different historiographies. History has been subservient to ideology in this part of the world, as in many other places. At least two different versions of history have been taught here over the last century, the Palestinian one and the Israeli one. In the new era of peace dawning in our country and our region, there will be a need in the future for a synthesized version of history that will take into account new developments and a new sense of contemporary consciousness.

Sociology: We will need to know more about what Israeli Arabs and Jews learn about each other from their communities and subcultures -- from "the street," the local media, the community centers, places of work, etc. This will also take into account the influence of modern means of communication -- television, computers, the Internet, CDROMs --which are all spreading a more universal culture in the world and in our region. Maybe we will discover that, despite different national and religious identities, people from the different faith communities in Israel have more in common than is ordinarily imagined.

Psychology: In reconceptualizing the way we learn and understand one another, we will have to take feelings into account as well as knowledge. We will need to become much more cognizant of what really bothers each side if we are going to develop ways of genuine empathy and caring. We will need to be sensitized to the issues and problems that give individuals and groups in the different communities anxiety, such as "security," "justice," "equal opportunity," "civil rights," "survival," "persecution/ holocaust," "occupation," etc. Undoubtedly a major part of understanding the other in Israeli society will be a kind of individual and group therapy whereby each side becomes more sensitive to the other's needs, feelings, and concerns.

Toward the Future: Promoting Peaceful Relations in Israel and the Region

We live in a new era in Israel. Peace agreements have been signed with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. And peace talks are underway with Syria. All of this has changed the political, physical, social, and psychological landscape in Israel. This is already beginning to have an impact on the nature of interreligious and intercultural relations in Israel and the region. The beginning of the new era of peace has already begun to open up new doors and new existential necessities for understanding our neighbors in much more serious and systematic ways than have been done in the past. As a result, we have begun to expand our dialogue beyond the borders of Israel by including Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority, Jordanians, and Egyptians-as well as Christians and Muslims from the West-in our seminars and conferences.

Some recent examples:

In a conference that we sponsored in Israel in June 1994, four young Palestinian Muslims from Gaza participated in the program on the theme of "Understanding One Another in Israeli Society." These young men, who were active in a peace movement in Gaza and who were serving as social welfare interns in Israeli Arab villages through a program known as Interns for Peace, would certainly not have been able to participate in such a seminar a year or two earlier.

During the past two years, a group of Palestinian Christian and Israeli clergy (priests and rabbis) and educators has been meeting periodically in informal, unpublicized forums to study each other's sacred texts together and to learn from one another.

In December of this past year, I attended the Service of Peace conference in Haifa, which brought together religious leaders from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt for two days of encouraging and optimistic discussions about the need for moderate religious leaders to be more outspoken for peace in the future.

For the past few years, our organization, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, has been cosponsoring seminars with the Palestinian Peace Information Center and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (of Germany) on "Educating about Each Other in the Era of Peace." We are currently planning our next seminar, which will focus on what we can learn from each other in the area of education for coexistence and democracy. We are also contemplating a regional conference on the theme of "Educational Planning for the Future in an Era of Peace," which would bring representatives of Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority together for intensive discussions on how we can supplement the political peace process with educational processes that will help ensure a better future for all of us in this region.

The Christian world is also dramatically changing, especially with regard to Israel, particularly in the Catholic Church. Specifically, the Fundamental Agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See, which was signed in Israel at the end of 1993, has normalized the relations between the Church and the Jewish people in a major way. This was not just a diplomatic agreement. It was, and is, at the same time a recognition of the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people everywhere in the world. In the light of this new situation, a new atmosphere of openness and trust enhances the dialogue between Catholics and Jews in Israel and worldwide. This act was strikingly evident in a recent two-day international symposium that we sponsored in Israel in February 1997 on the theme of "The Future of Jewish-Catholic Relations in the World and in Israel/the Holy Land." Representatives from the United States, Rome, and Israel not only reflected together on the remarkable achievements of Jewish-Catholic dialogue over the past 30 years, but also began to outline the agenda for the future, which will focus on more serious and systematic efforts to educate about each other in the years ahead.

These are just some examples that point to a new direction. I believe -- as do many of my colleagues and co-workers in Israel -- that we are moving towards a better future, despite all the obstacles and difficulties. We are already in a new era of peace with at least some of our neighbors. And for the first time in our history, we have a real possibility of living in an Israel and in a new Middle East in which there will be no more wars -- as we learned repeatedly in the speeches and the policies of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory! It seems to me that this is the essence of the peace agreements that have been signed so far, and those yet to come. We now live within a new existential reality whereby conflicts in our region are now solved by peaceful means through negotiations and compromise, a new fact of life that is even part of the consciousness and policy-making of the present government. This will eventually include religious and interreligious conflicts as well.
Peace agreements are abounding in our region, but they are essentially only diplomatic pieces of paper. Yet, they create new frameworks that open up new opportunities for coexistence and cooperation. In order for there to be genuine and lasting peace, however, we will need to work much harder at promoting peaceful relations between peoples. This is not the work of diplomats and politicians. Rather, it is, or at least ought to be, the vocation of religious leaders and educators all over the world and in Israel and the Middle East. This is the great opportunity and creative challenge that we now face.



Ron Kronish '68, a rabbi and educator, serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, based in Jerusalem. He is a cum laude graduate of Brandeis, an ordained rabbi (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York 1973), and holds a doctorate in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (1979). He has lived in Israel for over 17 years with his wife of 27 years, Amy Kronish (whom he met at Brandeis) and their three lovely daughters. Their middle daughter, Dahlia, is a student at Brandeis, in the Class of 1999.

Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel
Box 7855, Jerusalem, Israel 91078
Phone: 972-2-6726430 -- Fax: 972-2-6732717
E-mail: iccijeru@netvision.net.il


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