I woke up today to the startling news that President-elect Donald Trump wants to make “the ultimate deal” by playing a major role in achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians! Who would have imagined such a statement only last week? Sometimes peace initiatives come from totally unexpected sources?
For example, who would have thought that Menachem Begin would have made peace with Egypt? or that Yitzhak Rabin would have achieved the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian leadership of that time (the arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat)? or that Ariel Sharon would have pulled out of Gaza? or that Richard Nixon would have gone to China? Surprises can happen. Some religious people call them “miracles”.
I recently spent 10 days speaking before Jewish, Christian and Inter-religious audiences on the East Coast of the United States with an Israeli Arab colleague, Mayor Issa Jaber, the head of the local council of the town of Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem. We shared our personal stories concerning our involvement in inter-religious dialogue and education for Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel during the past 25 years with American Jews, Christians and Muslims, in churches, synagogues and mosques as well as universities and seminaries. Everywhere that we went, we were warmly received and our message was applauded and appreciated.
What was our message? And why was it accepted and welcomed by so many people in the USA?
Our message was simple and yet unexpected. Audiences in America (and in Israel) are so used to hearing only opposing and usually extremist views about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on their television networks, in their newspapers and on the internet. In contrast, we said, over and over again, that Peaceful Coexistence between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (Muslims and Christians) is not only desirable but also possible! We believe that this is certainly the case for Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of the state of Israel, who are the main minority group in our country (21%), and Israeli Jews, who are the majority (75% of Israeli citizens are Jewish).
But “coexistence” is not enough! We have sought –through many and varied dialogue and educational programs during the past 25 years–to move from coexistence, which I view as a neutral and insufficient term, to mutual understanding, reciprocal respect and constructive cooperation, for the benefit of Jewish and Arab communities throughout Israel and for the improvement of Israeli society as a whole. And, we are continuing to do this during the current year by bringing “Abrahamic Teams” of Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders to Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, at the same time that we plan to increase the number of these teams that reach out to Jews and Arabs throughout Israel in the years ahead.
In addition, I repeatedly expressed my (unusual) optimistic view that one day we will have peace in our region. People were usually surprised to hear this, as if they were hearing it for the first time in a long time. In fact, one journalist who interviewed me before one of our programs, asked me: “Do you think that there will be peace in your lifetime?” and when I answered “Yes!” he said: “how long do you plan to live?”
Yes, I still believe in the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinian People. I think that the alternative of peace is better than the status quo of ongoing wars, violence and counter-violence, and I think that the peoples on both sides (the Jewish People and the Palestinian People) will ultimately realize this and will press their leaders to end the cycle of violence and actively pursue the path of peace. And, as my colleague, Mr. Jaber repeatedly stated in our public dialogues: “We will need courageous leaders for peace.”
In the meantime, what do we do?
Well, we don’t sit tight and just wait. On the contrary, we do everything we can to advance mutual understanding and respect through dialogue, education and activism. We believe that “She who saves a single life is as if she has saved the whole world.” So we persevere, speak up, defend human rights of Jews and Palestinians, combat hatred and racism, and educate our peoples for a better future.