Ten years ago, on the eve of the Gulf War, a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians gathered, with their gas masks in hand, in a Jerusalem basement. Their hope was to form an organization that would, through interreligious dialogue, promote greater tolerance and peaceful coexistence between Arab and Jew - within Israel itself.
"We said then what we say now," says Rabbi Ron Kronish. "Despite the situation and the gray clouds over the region, we need to bring people together."
The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel has since grown into an umbrella group of 70 organizations, seeking through workshops, conferences, projects, and informal gatherings to break down barriers and build understanding between peoples who share the same country but differing cultures.
Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, are 20 percent of Israel's population, with the same civil rights as Jewish citizens. They do not serve in the security forces, however, and Jewish and Arab children attend different school systems. Arabs have protested various forms of discrimination, and the government has acknowledged, and sought to close, for example, considerable gaps in its levels of spending on Jewish and Arab communities.
Recognizing the power of cooperation over confrontation, says Rabbi Kronish, the group's director, the council has built a network of relationships among individuals and institutions, but the last six months have shown how far it still has to go.
"The events of last October shocked us," says Issa Jaber, an Israeli-Arab educator who is the ICCI's vice chairperson. "We discovered that what we had done was not enough - the ignorance between [Arab and Jew] was so huge."
When the peace process collapsed and the worst violence in years broke out last fall between Israel and the Palestinians, some Israeli-Arab youths began to protest the tough Israeli response to Palestinian actions. Tensions escalated, and at least nine Israeli-Arabs were killed by the police. Arabs were stunned that their own government had fired on their children, and Jews began to fear there were enemies in their midst.
Working to rebuild trust
"Both sides were shocked and frustrated," Mr. Jaber says, "so we began to bring large groups together to try to rebuild understanding. We held many peace tents - in Tel Aviv, in the center of Israel, in the Judean hills." People set up tents along the highways between Arab and Jewish communities, and came to sit, have coffee or eat together, and to discuss what had happened.
"It is not easy in the wake of violent events," Jaber says, "but both sides were sincere, and we have no alternative but to get along."
In February, the council formed a task force of Jews, Muslims, and Christians to study the principles of reconciliation within the three traditions and how to bring them to bear on their work.
Kronish and Jaber shared their experiences in an interview last week during a visit to the United States, where they pressed the case for rebuilding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through support for peacemaking at the grass roots. If the peoples don't learn to understand one another, they say, no basis exists for countering the positions of the extremists or implementing peace agreements.
In a speech at the Rockefeller Foundation marking ICCI's 10th anniversary, Kronish called for a international, Marshall Plan-type effort to direct resources toward curricula, teacher training in coexistence, and cooperative education in religions of the Middle East. "We have failed to ... harness resources to address the educational and religious issues that shape people's behavior and willingness to live together," he said. "If this had been a priority seven years ago, after the Oslo accords, we would not be in the situation we are in today."
Studying sacred texts
The council pioneered work in this area in 1996, with a project called Common Values/Different Sources. Jews, Muslims and Christians studied sacred texts together in search of shared values and ways they could be practiced in everyday life. The project resulted in a book, which is now being introduced into the schools.
A year and a half ago, they initiated, along with the Center for Social Concern, a Jewish-Muslim dialogue involving school principals, directors of community centers, and other community leaders. They are also carrying on projects related to environmental issues and a series of workshops on peace education.
"The ICCI does good work in helping think about education and how to promote interfaith understanding," says Rabbi Ari Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel. "It has an impact."
They are trying to get the message out in Israel that religion can be a force for peace, and to counter those that try to use religion to inflame passions, as occurred last fall when violence flared around the Jerusalem holy sites.
"What we have done is discuss the impact of the attempt to 'religionize' the conflict," Kronish adds, "and call on groups and leaders to speak out from the other point of view."
They have reached out to some degree to Palestinians on the West Bank, carrying on a dialogue with Palestinian Christians over a period of several years around the study of sacred texts. But "crossing the line" is extremely difficult now.
"If the politicians can get back on track in the peace process," Kronish says, "it's the kind of thing we would do more of in the future."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor