Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Religion as a Force for Peace

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Religion as a Force for Peace

Article excerpt

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. …

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