Of ice cream and interfaith dialogue

My first weekend at Johns Hopkins University, I stopped off at the interfaith center for free ice cream. I would have liked to do the same my first day at Hebrew University, but if there was an interfaith center, it was not something, I nor anyone I asked, had ever heard of.

There are plenty of “Israeli-Palestinian” dialogue groups, some with a religious bent, but these all come with their own political agenda, and are widely viewed as something for lefties. Being involved in interfaith work at Johns Hopkins, by contrast, carried no political implications. Where was the building in Israel where right-wing nuts from a variety of different religions could bond over their love of falafel – and, more importantly, who was going to feed me ice cream?

There are a few obstacles to apolitical interfaith dialogue in the holy land, the first being geography: I live half an hour away from Bethlehem, but on the “right” (or perhaps, according to settlers, “the wrong”) side of the Green Line, and that’s political. If I lived in an Arab village, whether as a settler or as a hippie peacenik, that would also be political. So the minute you choose a location for an interfaith center, politics already enters the mix.

Then, there are security concerns: For Jews, entering the territories can be dangerous. Yet holding interfaith meetings in pre-1967 Israel comes with logistical difficulties for Palestinians, who could also face security risks from within the Palestinian community for being involved in interfaith dialogue: Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, for example, choose not to vote in city elections rather than face the threat of being seen as a collaborator with Israel. This squares perfectly with the extremists’ vision: voting, and the life improvements that come with the exercise of political power, make it much harder to sew hatred – as does a culture of interfaith community and cooperation.

Of course, there are tons of places that involve micro interfaith interactions: As a Jerusalemite, I take the same buses as Christians and Muslims, and I might shop for a skirt in the same store in which a woman is buying her hijab. Residents of  the settlement Efrat shop at the same Rami Levy as Palestinians, and have a medical center that serves both Israelis and Palestinians. And I’m not even going to start talking about Tekoah and the incredible work by Rabbi Froman.

But a lot of these micro-interactions are limited by a very important factor: Language. I might be standing next to a woman going hijab-shopping, but I can’t tell her that color looks good on her, because I can’t assume she speaks fluent Hebrew, and my stabs at basic Arabic sound pretty laughable. Meanwhile, she might want to comment on my lack of fashion sense, but be prevented from doing so by her poor Hebrew.

Of course, language itself is inherently political – what does it mean for a majority ethnic or cultural group to speak the language of the minority, and vice versa? I’d rather not explore those questions here, but I will argue that Israel should do a better job of educating Israeli Jews in Arabic and Israeli Arabs in Hebrew, because one of the most important elements of a civil society is having a shared language – Eliezer Ben Yehuda knew that when he revived Hebrew, and so did all the Eastern European Zionist immigrants who broke their teeth over the holy language – though why they chose Hebrew instead of Yiddish is a complicated question.

Better language education would only solve part of the problem, however, for two reasons: 1. Israel does not control Palestinian education, so the “better Hebrew” part of this equation wouldn’t apply to all Muslim and Christian residents of the area (and to any Americans who want to argue for use of English as a neutral language: Guess what? English is political too.) 2. This would improve micro-interactions but still not provide a place for macro-ones, to foster the types of conversations and activities that constitute the building blocks of a more peaceful society – and yes, interfaith dialogue is different than Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. First of all, it does not group people by ethnicity. Secondly, it focuses not on what divides us, but on what we as religious people have in common and how we can learn from each other. Furthermore, a lot of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue focuses on the conflict itself, whereas interfaith dialogue and activities can cover a wider span of topics, from discussing prayer experiences to simply coming together to watch a movie.

It could be that as I go to drown my sorrows in ice cream, the place I’ve been longing for will come out of the woodwork, and write an angry article about how they’ve existed all along and my piece completely ignores them, to which I would respond: Why aren’t you getting your name out there, and what are you doing to make interfaith community-building an accepted and apolitical part of Israeli culture and society?

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.