During the last year, I have initiated a new Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, through the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which we call Kodesh, an acronym for “Religious Voices for Peace” (“holy” in English). We believe that by raising our voices for peaceful coexistence we are doing holy work in Israel.

The Kodesh group—which is comprised of 15 Israeli Jews and 15 Israeli Muslims from the fields of religious leadership, academia, education, communal leadership and journalism– had its first meeting of the year on January 15th, at the Academic Arab College of Education in Haifa. We were warmly hosted by the leadership of the college, by its faculty and its president, Advocate Zaki Kamal, a distinguished Druze lawyer from the Druze village of Dalyat El Carmel, just outside of Haifa. Adv. Kamal spoke to us about the importance of education in the Arab sector of Israeli society, and informed us that the Arab College of Education in Haifa trains 75% of the teachers who teach in Arab schools in Israel.

Our encounter in Haifa focused on three topics: 1) learning about the Academic Arab College of Education, 2) learning about the attitude to the Other in Koranic and Hadith sources, and 3) learning about the meaning of “Zakat” (charity) in Islamic culture.

This encounter was an opportunity for the Jewish participants in Kodesh to visit the Arab College of Education for the first time. Even two Jewish participants, who live in Haifa had never been there. Therefore, this was an important experience for all the Jews in the group since most of us had virtually no knowledge about this excellent institution of Higher education in Israel, which is doing important work in professionalizing the field of education in Arab communities throughout Israel. The Academic Arab College of Education is a teacher’s training and in-service institute, and has 6000 students in all of its programs. We met many of the teaching staff, which includes both Jewish and Arab teachers, and we were impressed by their dedication and commitment to their students and their institution. And, we learned that this college is now striving to become the first Arab university in Israel!

In addition, some of the lecturers of the college taught us sources from the Koran which helped us to understand the approach of traditional Islam to the “other”. For example, we were introduced to the following verse :

People, we have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. The noblest of you before Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah is the Knower, the Aware. (Sura 49:13)

Indeed, we were there to begin to know one another better, as people of faith and as followers of different religions. It was important for us to learn that Islam, according to this important Koranic text, calls for interreligious dialogue, so that we can learn to live together, based on mutual understanding.

The presentation of this verse –and other Koranic verses—led to a rich and lively discussion, which led us to many important issues in Muslim and Jewish theology and philosophy, such as Free Will and Divine Providence. Most of the participants in this study session felt that it opened them up to surprising  similarities between Islam and Judaism.

Lastly, we learned from Kadi Mohammed Zibdeh of Jaffa about the importance of Zakat in the Muslim Tradition. Zakat is not just charity. It is a fundamental pillar of Islam, which is related to basic social needs of the community. Giving a percentage of one’s income to the poor is obligatory among the Muslims of Israel. We learned that there are a wide variety of non-profit organizations which help collect the zakat “tax” and distribute the monies collected to the poor in each community.

Jewish-Muslim Dialogue is a rare phenomenon in Israel. As far as I know, we (within the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel) are the only ones doing it. Most people here tend to divide Arabs and Jews ethnically or nationally rather than religiously. But we know that religious identity is central to most Muslims in Israel and to many Jews. It is impossible for us to understand the identity of our Muslim Arab neighbors in Israel (who make up more than 90% of the Arab citizens of Israel) without understanding how they understand and practice the religion of Islam in their communities and in their personal lives.

I have come to believe in recent years that a healthy Jewish-Muslim Dialogue is not only an imperative for us  in Israel, but one that is doable and practical, since both sides have much to gain, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of enabling us to learn to live together in the same society.