Iyad Zahalka, the kadi (judge) of the Jerusalem Muslim Shariya court of the State of Israel, and I were grateful for the opportunity to be able to present our ideas about “the other peace process” to Jewish, Christian, Muslim and interreligious audiences in several cities in the USA during a 16 day speaking tour to the USA in late October/early November that brought us to New York, New Jersey, Detroit and Washington DC. All of this took place before the recent Gaza War.
What is “The Other Peace Process?” It is different from the political one, which has been stalled for many years. The “Other Peace Process” is sometimes referred to as “the people-to-people track” or “the peace-building process” or “track two diplomacy.” This is different from peace-making, which one of my friends calls assembling “pieces of paper,” i.e. the creation of peace treaties, usually by lawyers and diplomats, who then argue for the next several years (or decades) why the other side didn’t live up to the legal agreement that was made! The “Other Peace Process” is the one that brings people from different religions and nationalities together to encounter each other substantively and sensitively in order to find ways to live in peaceful coexistence together.
Kadi Zahalka is a Palestinian, Arab, Muslim citizen of Israel and a respected judge in our country. I am a Reform rabbi who moved to Israel 33 years ago to live in the Jewish state of Israel. I have served in educational and communal positions in Jerusalem for over three decades. I suspect that this may have been the first time in most of the cities in which we appeared that a kadi and a rabbi spoke on the same platform at synagogues, churches, mosques, universities and communal groups.
For me, one of the highlights of this trip was when Kadi Zahalka and I addressed a congregation of 1,000 Muslim worshipers in the Adams Mosque in Northern Virginia (45 minutes from Washington DC) on a Friday morning, before the noon prayer. We both felt that our message was well received and highly appreciated by worshipers in one of the largest mosques in the United States today.
Our message was one that is not usually heard outside of Israel – a message of moderation which emphasizes that peaceful living is possible and that reaching a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine is not impossible. Indeed, I believe strongly that our conflict can come to an end, as other seemingly hopeless conflicts have ended in what might have seemed as intractable situations in the world, such as in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Bosnia and other places. We have to keep this vision of peace alive, and not allow ourselves to be resigned to despair and depression because the peace process is taking so long in our region.
Kadi Zahalka, who represents a new generation of serious and dynamic Muslim judges in Israel, presented a moderate, liberal interpretation of Islam, as he lives and practices it that is largely unknown and unrecognized outside of Israel, even though his style of Islam is the dominant one in Israel. He talked about how Islam in Israel is different from Islam in Iran or Gaza or Lebanon or Saudi Arabia, where the extremists have captured the regimes and the headlines. In addition, he explained the true meaning of Shariya Law, as he understands it. Shariya “is not about extremism or violence,” he said many times. “Rather, it is about humanistic values and how ordinary Muslims live their lives, much like halacha (Jewish law) is for the Jews.”
And at each public dialogue, I shared with diverse audiences our new thinking about the method of dialogue, as well as the message and importance of peace. I explained why and how interreligious and intercultural dialogue is an essential ingredient for a lasting peace. Politics can only produce the framework for peace. We religious leaders, educators, psychologists and social workers can help people learn to live in peace together. Dialogue, education and action are the methods to achieve this.
Finally, we presented for Jews, Christians and Muslims in the United States the challenges as we look towards the future, and explained how dialogue and education will play a critical role in a sustainable peace process, based on genuine mutual understanding, in the years ahead. Our role is not to solve the macro political problems of the region. That task is for the politicians and diplomats. Our task – as religious leaders, educators and activists in our communities – is to change the hearts and minds of the people on both sides of the conflict to be able to live in peaceful relations over the long haul.
The mini-war in Gaza and in the South of Israel is over. Now is the time for governments in our region to return to peace-making, and for those of us in civil society to redouble our efforts in peace-building to sustain the possibility of coexistence now, and for the future.