The last four months in Israel have been characterized by terrorist incidents against innocent civilians and Israeli soldiers, as well as counter-terrorist measures that have taken the lives of many Palestinians in a new round of violence in Israel and the Territories (otherwise known as the West Bank or Judea and Samaria). This has been accompanied by increased incitement to violence and hatred on both sides which have only exacerbated the situation. During this period, calm rational dialogue and discussion have been almost totally absent.
In the context of this escalation of violence and hatred, it was remarkable that the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which is now the interreligious dialogue department of Rabbis for Human Rights, was invited by a major communal organization in the city of Ashdod, in south central Israel, to plan and implement the first of a series “Abrahamic Team” events slated for this year. The event took place at the Levron Community Center in a neighborhood in the city and there was a highly enthusiastic and appreciative audience in attendance.
The team consisted of a rabbi from Jerusalem, an Anglican priest from Ramleh (a city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), and a Muslim religious leader from an Arab village in the center of Israel. I served as the moderator of the group. Each of the three speakers shared a bit of their personal journey and then addressed the subject of “Human Dignity and the Value of Life”, according to their own understandings of their religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—which are the main religions of most of the people of Israel.
Why was this panel discussion so important—and so rare—at this time in Israel? And, why was there such interest in it among Jewish citizens of the city of Ashdod? Moreover, what was the message and the method of the program?
First of all, in the light of the ongoing violence in Israel and the region, the organizers of this panel were interested in hearing different voices from the shrill and fanatic ones that dominate the media in Israel. In contrast to these voices of extremism and conflict, they wanted to hear from religious personalities in Israel who could share moderate and calming points of views which could help to mitigate hatred and to counter the incitement to violence.
Secondly, why was there so much interest among the Jewish citizens of Ashdod in hosting and attending this discussion? It seems to me that they are sick and tired of hearing only about hatred and violence and are searching for other ways to engage and address the issues of the day which affect them. They are bothered and disturbed by the ongoing violence and are seeking other ways to relate to it instead of through anger, apathy or aggression.
Thirdly, the message and the method of the program spoke deeply to those who came to listen (including adults and youth from the area).
The message was concise and clear: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel can live in peaceful coexistence together, with mutual understanding and respect. Our religious traditions—as was demonstrated by the texts of each tradition which were taught in the presentations– all stress the sanctity of human life and the dignity of every human being, irrespective of his or her religion, ethnic group, or nationality.
The method was also appreciated and understood by the audience. In contrast to the shouting and interrupting that goes on every day and almost every hour on radio and television in Israel—usually by people of extremely opposite and denigrating views—we demonstrated the art of dialogue, which includes compassionate listening, mutual respect, and seeking common ground while also highlighting differences in interpretations in each religious tradition.
With the assistance of a grant from the Allianz Cultural Foundation and the Robert Bosch Foundation in Germany, we plan to continue to spread our message of peaceful coexistence and our method of dialogue to many and varied audiences in Israel this year, including community centers and schools in the Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. We will do this because we think that there is a thirst among the people at the grassroots for this message since they are fed up with letting extremist ideas run rampant in Israeli society and are searching for an alternative way.