This past November, the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad was host to the first ever conference covering the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish perspective.

With growing population rates in both Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and Arab segments, the need to conduct constructive dialogue between these two groups has never been more urgent. The increased size of these communities bears with it the potential for change not only in Israel’s cultural landscape, but its fragile democratic character as well.

So how did Elad, an ultra-Orthodox city in central Israel, become the venue for a conference that hosted over 250 people from all shades of the religious and political spectrum?

For the last year, under the auspices of The Citizens’ Accord Forum, a group of leaders from the ultra-Orthodox community has been meeting with Muslim and Jewish experts and academics to learn about the situation of the Arab community in Israel. One of the outcomes of this yearlong learning experience was organizing and holding a conference in Elad.

Professor Nissim Mizrachi, Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University, and a specialist on cultural relations in Israel, was one of the speakers at the conference; he believes that the union could not have come at a better time. Emphasizing the importance of the event, he stated:

This is the first time that I’ve been invited to an event focusing on how peace is understood by two non-secular groups. Although they might be seen as belonging to different sides of the conflict, their cultural and economic similarities, as well as their growing proportion within Israel’s population, make it imperative for them to take leading roles in shaping the country’s future.

Part of the Citizens’ Accord Forums Applied Deliberative Dialogue initiative, these two groups that had little to no exposure to one another were now developing a partnership deeply rooted in common views and shared values. What started as a series of dialogue sessions only a year prior, developed into a public forum that saw a group of Arabs and secular Jews openly invited into the heart of a traditional ultra-Orthodox community.

What’s next for these groups?

Following the conference in Elad, the ultra-Orthodox leadership group will continue to meet with Muslim religious leaders and develop the call-to-action paper regarding the maintenance of Jewish and Muslim holy sites in Israel. After expanding their knowledge of the Jewish-Arab conflict, the ultra-Orthodox leaders are now prepared to take responsibility for promoting action on one of the core issues of the conflict – the holy places of each community.

As for continued efforts, on December 18 The Citizens’ Accord Forum in conjunction with the Rabbinate Union and the European Union will be hosting a conference specifically geared towards gender issues affecting ultra-Orthodox and Arab women. The public conference will be taking place in the Knesset. For more information and to request attendance to this event, visit our website at www.caf.org.il.