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The Interfaith Encounter Association is a civil organization dedicated to promote real coexistence and human peace in the Holy Land through cross-cultural study and inter religious dialogue. In terms of numbers, it represents approximately four thousand people who have participated in more than four hundred encounters in more than hundred different groups. The belief that drives the action of the Interfaith Encounter Association is that, “rather than being the cause of the conflict, religion can and should be a source of solution for conflicts that exist in the Middle East and beyond.” It was created in 2001 at the wake of a year of bloodshed in the Middle East.
My first meeting with the Interfaith Encounter Association was with Yehuda, the executive director. He had received me in his office near the Old City of Jerusalem. We were sitting on a table in a room full of books and he had served me a glass of water before we started the conversation. He explained me that the Interfaith Encounter Association was a civil organization with no political agenda that organized forums which included people from everywhere in the Holy Land. He added that the aim was “to include all ideologies” in order to bring together neighbors and build bridges together. He personally encouraged the groups to meet once a month to talk about interfaith themes and to develop friendships between people that disagreed. I asked him what these groups were actually doing when they met and he simply explained me that they were discussing religious topics. Then, I asked him if they were facing hostility for bringing Palestinians and Israelis together. He emphasized that some radical groups were actually hostile to them because they accused them of “normalization”.He mentioned the Boycott Divestment Sanction (BDS) movement and radical Jewish as examples. However, they had no problem with the authorities. After that, he continued by mentioning the success of having been able to create a group in Hebron, a city in the West Bank that is currently divided (July 2019) with heavy hostility between an Israeli settlement and the local Palestinian population. Yehuda considered that the situation in the Holy Land could be solved by a goodwill of the people that lied beyond politics. Actually, he thought that, to solve the situation, politics had to be taken out of the talks. His vison was that peace meant free mobility for all. To do this, there was the need of a change in the perception because everybody was suffering from it.
After our meeting, Yehuda proposed me to come at a diner the same evening. He explained me that it was an Iftar diner (a daily celebration during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan that consist of breaking the fast after a prayer) that was organized in a Christian center in Jerusalem. I arrived there during the prayer time in the evening. I passed the gate of the property and ended up in a garden. There, three different groups were having a prayer with their co-religionaries that were participating to the reunion. One was a Christian group, the other one was a Jewish group and the last one was a Muslim group. After the prayers, we gathered all together for diner. An Imam from London said a few words about peace and coexistence and we were served rice with chicken. During the diner, all the people at the different tables were exchanging peacefully. The differences between the people from each group were clearly visible due to their different signs of belonging that were worn freely. And the people were mostly staying around other people from the same faith group. But all of them exchanged with one another or listened with interest to the conversations of their neighbors. At the end of the diner, a traditional interfaith music band gathered and began to play music. There were Jewish, Christians and Muslim playing the instruments. I wanted to take pictures of that evening but it appeared to be complicated because some people didn’t want to be identified as participing to an event like that for their own safety…
A few days after, I checked out a few activity reports from the Interfaith Encounter Association. The association was based on the principle and goals of equal representation of all faiths and the implementation of efficient interactive programs to change the perspectives. It had been recognized and awarded for its actions by the UNESCO that considered it as “an organization that is contributing to the culture of peace”; it had been awarded the Prize for Humanity by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation; and it was selected as “the entrepreneurial project that will change the face of Tomorrow” by the Israeli Presidential conference in 2008. In addition, the Interfaith Encounter Association, had many international and regional connections. It was also a member in the Committee of Religious NGOs of the United Nations and a member of the Steering Committee of the Multi-Faith Coalition for Partnering with the United Nations. In terms of philosophy and methodology, the Interfaith Encounter Association did not intend to blend all in one undifferentiated group but to “provide a table where all can come and sit in safety and ease, while being fully who they are in their respective religions.”The Interfaith Encounter Association considered encounters as a tool to rebuild a culture of peace. Also, the association had a strong emphasis on their “Women Interfaith Encounter” program because of the low representation of women in the higher clergy of the four faith traditions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Druze). The Interfaith Encounter Association had a third programmatic section, the “Youth Encounter Association” that designed and implement programs for young adults based on the idea that: “Young people’s lack of religious or social authority often results in their marginalization in religious and inter-religious circles”. In order to do all of this, the Interfaith Encounter Association had three different program formats: inter-religious study sessions, multi-day conferences and desert seminars. These served “as a vehicle towards understanding, acceptance and respect for the Other” and “as a way to deepen awareness of one’s own religion.”
In term of activity, the Interfaith Encounter Association had different sections. In the General Program section, the “Jerusalem Arabic Speaking Group” had distinguished itself for holding together and meeting without interruption for more than ten years. In the Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue section, the Interfaith Encounter Association had sponsored 130 Israeli-Palestinian encounters. In this section, the “Jerusalem-Hebron Group” had “left its marks by cleaning the roads” of two very influential multicultural sites of Jerusalem: the Al-Aqsa and Damascus Gate. The “Jerusalem-Ramallah Group” that had recently been launched had gathered Jewish, Muslims and Christians youth and adults to express their desire to live together in peace. In the Women’s Interfaith Encounter section, the “Haifa Women’s Group” group had celebrated Christmas and New Year together and the “Midwives for Peace Group” had organized a breastfeeding workshop for Palestinian nurses. The Youth Interfaith Encounter section had a group called “Faith in Music” which gather Jewish and Arab musicians together to have the opportunity to learn and perform together with each other’s rhythms and instruments. The Interfaith Encounter Association had, for the “Faith in Music” group, organized a concert in Jerusalem with national and international artists. The youth had also a “Model UN group” that “arranged an impressive number of 17 activities for Jewish and Arab students, including several diplomatic visits to Tel Aviv.” And the youth section had also a group at the Tel Aviv University that studied Jewish and Islamic laws and customs. Finally, the Interfaith Encounter Association was also involved in special projects with local NGOs and institutes. One project is called “Praying Together in Jerusalem”, an annual event where nearly two hundred people gather “for prayer, mutual reflection and to express their intention to respect and embrace their differences and similarities.” Another special project that was quite unexpected was the “Teaneck, New Jersey Group”, a group located in the United States that exported the Interfaith Encounter Association’s model. This group that started only with Jewish and Muslims had extended and attracts Christians and other faith community members.
After that, I consulted “IEA Stories”, a database that contains reports from encounters that happened within the framework of the Interfaith Encounter Association. In it, I read a few interesting stories of Jewish and Muslims doing things together in Israel/Palestine:
· During a visit at the United Nations in Geneva, Yehuda himself stressed the importance of active dialogue and said: “Learning from someone you disagree with is very enriching.”
· In March 2019, an encounter was held with Dr Arun Gandhi from New York and author of “The Gift of Anger” who dedicated two hours of his time to the group.
· In April 2019, a group that had finished their lectures asked themselves what was next. They concluded that they had a lot to heal before approaching a new joint approach. Therefore, they decided to process this together.
· In March 2019, the group “Midwives for Peace” decided to create a workshop for Palestinian health professionals regarding violence against women.
· In March 2019, a group gathered to prepare holiday gift bags to give to the child in need for the occasion of the Jewish celebration of Purim. These bags were featured with holiday cards written in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Chinese.
· In January 2019, during an encounter, a group discovered that there were a lot of similarities in their respective religions when it came to prohibitions. At the end of the encounter, they decided that the next time, they would discuss the “design” of the Torah and the Holy Quran.
· In January 2019, a group encountered with a Qadi, an Islamic judge. During the encounter, Jews and Muslims discovered a common ground in their respective religion: it was forbidden to cut a tree for unjustified reasons, even during the time of war. The Qadi added that “If we all love this land, we have also to love each other. It is important to break the fear and build our togetherness, so that our children will grow old together and have better lives.”
· In December 2018, during an encounter, a Jewish participant mentioned doing acupuncture in her work. This led to a discussion between Muslims and Jewish about the use of alternative medicine in their communities.
· In December 2018, during an encounter, there was a discussion about efforts made by settlers and their Palestinian neighbors to get close to one another. They concluded that, despite the propaganda, there was a genuine will for peace. However, at the next meeting of this group, five Palestinians could not come because they were refused the permit to leave the West Bank by the Israeli authorities.
· In November 2018, 15 Israeli visited Palestinian villages and the people living in these. Despite the conflict, it was said that they wanted to live together and get to know each other.
· In December 2018, a group of the Youth Interfaith Encounter met for the first time. There was an emphasis on the fact that all the Jewish of the group were students and most of the Muslims were workers. They decided to plan to meet twice a month in the future. Once to discuss the Jewish perspective and once to discuss the Muslim perspective.
A few weeks after, I joined a group for an encounter in Jerusalem. The meeting was happening at the Tantur Oecumenical Institute that was located near the Ramallah checkpoint of the Wall of Separation. The group was made of two Jewish Israeli women, three Jewish Israeli men, two Muslim Palestinian women and one Muslim Palestinian man. The topic of the encounter was the management of financial issues in both Islam and Judaism. Before starting the discussion, I was told that, since I was neither a Jewish Israeli or a Muslim Palestinian, I was welcomed to share my own philosophical opinion on the topics. After that, the Palestinian man began to discuss what he had researched about the topic. He began by explaining the distinction between Halal and Haram. After that, he explained that in Islam, money cannot be used to make more money. This is why Islamic banks did not have the right to ask for interest. He added that the prophet recommended to do paperwork with money to avoid conflicts. Then, he asked to the Jews if it was the same in the Torah but they replied that it was different. He continued reading his paper and mentioned insurances. It was not permitted in Islam because there was too much uncertainty in it. He added that Islamic economy operated along the lines of risk sharing. After insurances, he talked about charity. He explained that, in the Holy Quran, wealth was considered as given by Allah. Therefore, one of the pillar of Islam was a mandatory charity: the Zakat. Paying it allowed the believer to cleanse his wealth. “It does not decrease your wealth but increase it. What you give, God will give you more.” he quoted.
After that, a Jewish man gave his description of gambling. He said: “In Judaism, a person who’s habitual to gambling is disqualified to be a witness.” Then he added: “All wealth is owned by God. It is not our money; we’re just taking care of it for God.” Then, he explained that, in Judaism, one has to engage in money making but that the amount of time to do it is limited: one third of the time for money making, one third of the time for eating and sleeping and one third of the time to study the Torah. If one didn’t follow these rules, he would be a “rich man without nothing”. At this moment, a Palestinian asked: “Are there really Jews doing that?”. The man said yes and added: “work is not the goal but what allows us to have deeper goals. The first question that we will be asked to us in paradise is if we were honest in our business dealings.” The Palestinians replied that it was the same in Islam. The Jewish man continued and said that in the Torah, it was forbidden to sell weapons to “idol worshippers”.
When the Jewish man finished his presentation, the two groups compared their model in charity. Both believed that there was a need for an institution to help the poor. They continued talking using examples. During that time, the Palestinian man asked to share visions about the cost of marriage. A Jewish person said that it was expensive. The Muslims replied that they had the same issue. Then, the Palestinian man said: “The prophet said that the less it is expensive, the more blessed it is.” We all agreed, including me and we laughed about it. The meeting ended and some of the people came to ask me how the social security system worked in Belgium. After that, I asked if I could take a picture of the group. Most accepted but the two Palestinian women refused because they were afraid of consequences if they were identified in such meeting.
Before leaving, I asked to the Palestinian man and a Jewish man if I could ask them a few questions about why they were coming to the encounters and how their relatives where perceiving it. The first one to reply to my questions was the Palestinian man. He was a sixty-four years old professor of geology and environment who had been coming to the encounters for a very long period. He explained me that he was doing that because it was the best way to know the other. Because hearing about the other was not a credible way to know. He had people supporting him and people opposing him but that did not really matter because this was what he believed in. He added that he was not hurting anybody and that he gained benefit from these meetings because it expanded his knowledge and he knew more about those who were in conflict with him. I asked him if he thought that the encounters were part of the solution for the conflict in Israel/Palestine and he said: “I believe that by building small islands of peace here and small islands of peace there, one day, all these islands can combine and make a continent and this continent may grew.”
The Jewish man was a fifty-two years old technical writer who had come to the encounters for five years. He had decided to come by interest of interacting in a controlled environment with Muslims because, as a Jewish from Jerusalem, he didn’t get that many opportunities to have quality interactions about matters of the spirit, matters of religion and to see how the other side lives. He had nobody opposing him for coming to the encounters but he was keeping it secret to a lot of people. “I’d say that in your public life, when you’re involved in religious dialog and reconciliation among the faiths and among the communities, you’re selective with who you’re sharing the information with. Why? Because ultimately, you have to make a living out there, living in the world. And, you know, if there are people in the office whom you know have prejudicial views against interfaith dialog and gatherings among the faith, you’re selective.” He added that the people who were not interested were simply not interested and that it was really hard to argue with people just sitting with a coffee and talking about religion because it was not harming anybody. To the question of the encounters being part of a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, he said that he was realistic about it: “It’s just a small drop in the bucket.” But he added that he believed that changed did not happened from the top down but from the grassroots: from the common people having interactions. “People out there, in the world see what we live as a war zone. And sometimes it is. But what you have to remember is that any news media, whether it is left wing or right wing or whatever it is, only reports when things figuratively and literally explodes. But what they are not reporting on is that thousands and thousands of interactions that human beings are having everyday where no one is getting hurt and nothing terrible is happening.”
A few days after, I read an article from the Jerusalem Post about Ashraf, a Palestinian business man from Hebron who regularly hosted encounters for the Interfaith Encounter Association. The article stated that Ashraf’s life was threatened by the Palestinian Authority because he had been attending the conference organized by Jared Kushner in Bahrein. The intelligence services from the Palestinian Authority had sent approximately fifty officers to his home. He managed to escape but got injured in his escape. The intelligence service also raided the house of another man who participated in the conference and arrested him. He was released the next day under pressure of the United States administration.