Growing Number of Interfaith Groups Focus on Peaceful Coexistence in Israel

JERUSALEM — On a windy fall evening, Muhammed Said strolled up to the Jaffa Gate, one of the main entrances to the long-revered and contested Old City of Jerusalem, and embraced a Jewish man wearing a skull cap.

Having spent much of his day traveling from his home in the West Bank Palestinian city of Nablus, Said was relieved to have finally reached Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, a journey for which he had to pre-arrange a permit to be allowed through military checkpoints. A devout Muslim, he could now join Jews and Christians for the monthly interfaith prayer meeting he always looks forward to attending.

“It’s a very hard and complicated situation, so this is a nice moment just to call to God,” Said, a Palestinian tour guide who also brought his sister and a neighbor with him, said at the time. A large man with a wide smile, he also had a bruise on his forehead from time spent bowed to the ground in prayer. “We are all the sons of Abraham.”

On that evening, about 50 people, both locals and visitors, showed up for Praying Together in Jerusalem, a monthly gathering begun with just a few people in 2015. The group is open to anyone, and attendance varies each month from a few dozen to more than 100. In addition to prayer time, the group also discusses its various religious rituals and texts. They seek to increase respect and understanding of the traditions that tie these religions to the city, and often play a role in the ongoing violent conflict here.

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“As people who are observant within our different traditions and believe in the power of prayer, we thought that inviting people of faith to come together would be a way of seeking to change hearts and break through the impasse,” says the Rev. Russell McDougall, the rector at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, and a co-founder of the group.

Praying Together in Jerusalem is one of many mostly small, grassroots projects focused on encouraging peaceful co-existence among Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs that have attracted growing numbers in recent years despite ongoing violence and terrorism and a stall in bilateral peace talks.

Some of the groups are proving to be more than isolated expressions for peace. Even on official levels, there are signs that religious groups are playing a growing role in resolving disputes. Last year, Israeli officials asked leaders of The Religious Peace Initiative, a joint Israeli-Palestinian interreligious dialogue group, to participate in talks between Israeli police and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a religious trust that administers the Dome of the Rock shrine and the al-Aqsa mosque on the contested Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“I think more and more people are realizing that peace is a grassroots process, and that their responsibility is to not just vote for government leaders, but to get off their couch and go do things,” says Yehuda Stolov, executive director of the Interfaith Encounter Association, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit network of more than 100 different interfaith discussion groups that has seen sharp growth in the past three years. Other signs of the growing interest in coexistence include the expansion of Israel‘s only network of Jewish-Arab Hand-in-Hand Schools, and more workplaces creating interfaith dialogue groups.

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“This definitely leads to better understanding, helps with the language barriers and reduces racism,” says Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute think tank. Haj-Yahya has studied interethnic dialogue groups in workplaces in Israel.

Still, relations between Arabs and Jews remain the No. 1 source of tension in society for Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population. Those relations are the second-greatest source of stress for Israeli Jews, after tensions between right- and left-wing factions, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Putting Religion at the Forefront

Some of the newest interfaith initiatives are popping up in places that stir the rawest conflict, including in Jerusalem and on the West Bank among Palestinian villagers and Israeli settlers. These places have seen dozens of fatal stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks in recent years, as well as responses by the Israel Defense Forces. Those groups say they are key to improving life, even if they are not designed to find a political solution.

“There’s no trust now between our societies, so what we can do is to try to build trust with the other side,” says Shaul David Judelman, who lives in the Israeli settlement of Tekoa on the West Bank and who co-founded Roots to bring together Jewish settlers and Palestinians from the nearby towns and villages. Roots runs dialogue groups and community meals, in addition to summer camps and other programs that bring together local Israeli and Palestinian children.

Roots and other new initiatives also distinguish themselves from the stalled bilateral peace process by involving religion and emphasizing its role in tying both Israeli and Palestinians to the land.

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“We need to create a new framework for moving forward, and we need to involve religion,” says Judelman, an Orthodox Jew who immigrated to Israel in 2000 under the country’s law of return that allows all Jews or close family members of Jews to obtain citizenship. “I am not going to give up on my religious truth that the Jewish people belong to this land, but the question is, does the land belong to us? And can Palestinians respect my belonging to the land, and can I respect their belonging to the land?”

A crucial aspect of effective dialogue is involving top leaders and extremists, says Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Israeli Knesset member and co-president of The Religious Peace Initiative, a group comprised of senior Jewish and Muslim leaders, including rabbis from Jewish settlements on the West Bank and leaders from the Islamic Movement, whose northern branch was outlawed in Israel in 2015 for incitement.

“This is what really moves things,” Melchior says. “This is how we will save lives.” In addition to educational programs for local religious Jews and Muslims, The Religious Peace Initiative conducts many sensitive discussions behind closed doors. It was in this role that Israeli government officials asked the group to help out last year when Palestinian leaders were threatening mass violence if Israel did not remove new security measures on the Temple Mount after three gunmen had killed two Israeli police officers at the site.

“We were heading toward a terrible intifada, but we used our network and we found a compromise, Melchior says.

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But even those groups that are not meeting with top leaders feel they are making a difference and transforming the historically secular landscape of local coexistence movements.

“We are putting religion at the forefront,” says Peta Jones Pellach, the Jewish co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem.

Such groups are also an example of what Israelis and Palestinians have in common, said Taleb al-Harithi, the group’s Muslim coordinator who lives near the West Bank city of Hebron. “Whatever connection we have, whatever diversity we have, this shouldn’t be a matter of conflict, it should be a matter of respect,” al-Harithi says.

Stepping Back From Polarized Conflict

The long-term effects of such interactions remain to be seen, says Zachary Metz, adjunct assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, who has worked in and studied the field of conflict resolution around the world, including the study of grassroots groups.

“But when the leaders are not making peace, and we have seen the limitations of the institutional peace process, this is where the action is,” Metz says. “These interactions carry huge and untapped political power and potential, especially because the conflict is so polarized. These groups are injecting the complexity that gets lost when the conflict get so polarized.”

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Meanwhile, the group that met at the Jaffa Gate walked together through the winding cobblestone streets to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, a massive church and guesthouse complex built on the remains of a Crusader-era fifth-century chapel. Inside a conference room, after a short group discussion of Abraham’s trait of hospitality in Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts and beliefs, Said washed his hands, face and feet for prayer using a plastic water bottle and bucket.

As the clock struck 6 p.m., church bells clanged and nearby speakers blared the muezzin’s call for prayer.

While Said and fellow Muslims prayed at one end of the room, a group of Jews conducted a prayer service in the middle of the large room. At the other end of the room, McDougal led a prayer service for Christians. It is to preserve that diversity and the authenticity of liturgy that each religion recites its own specific prayers side by side rather than a generic interfaith prayer together. At the end of those prayers, all participants gathered in a circle, and Pellach thanked them for coming.

“Jerusalem itself needs our prayers,” she said.

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