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SIDIC Periodical XXIX - 1996/2-3
Jerusalem: Prophecy of Peace (Pages 30 - 35)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Implications of the Peace Agreements for Interreligious/Intercultural Relations in Israel
Ronald Kronish


First of all, let me say what a great pleasure and privilege it is for me to be here with you today. I very much appreciate the invitation to address you and to share with you my reflections on how the peace process is changing the religious and educational environment in Israel.
I will divide my presentation today into three parts:
I - The new peace atmosphere in Israel and the Region.
II - The current state of interreligious relations in Israel.
III - Towards the future: The growing interconnections between the peace agreements and the need to develop peaceful relations through more and better interreligious and intercultural dialogue and encounter.

Before I begin, let me say a few words about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory. This event has greatly shocked Israel, the Jewish world and the entire civilised world. It has caused great trauma and soul-searching in Israel, and the people of Israel are now in the process of coming to grips with the meaning of this terrible tragedy.
I was out of the county when the assassination happened, and on the day of Rabin's funeral, 6 November 1995, I received the following fax from my wife in Jerusalem:
"Ariella (our daughter) and I have been sitting all today, watching the funeral, listening to the speeches. Ariella was out all last night at a vigil with her youth movement near the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, and they walked as a large group towards the Knesset (Israel's Paliament) to pay last respects. I had gone there also in the middle of the night with a friend. We waited around for about an hour and a half, but the crowds were overwhelming and we couldn't even get on line! There were hundreds and hundreds of people being turned away. And hundreds of young people in their teens twenties, spending hours sitting around yizkor candles, singing songs of peace, crying, just being together. We found it quite moving."

My feeling is that this tremendous outpouring of feeling is a sign that the silent majority was really behind Rabin - the military leader and hero and the peacemaker. He combined an understanding of our security needs with a desire for peace. Being the first sabra (native-born Israeli) prime minister, and a military hero, he was really loved.

There are, however, already incidents of "religious leaders", especially from Kiryat Arb a, who have been declaring this murder a righteous deed. After all, they are stating that in their view Rabin was a traitor and that no land of Israel can be given away. But the masses are definitely in favour of territorial compromise. There is no other way. Indeed, the lasting legacy of Yitzhak Rabin is that the peace process in Israel and the Middle East is irreversible, moving forward step by step for the benefit of the people and all peoples in our region.

I - The New Peace Atmosphere in Israel
There is no question in my mind that since the Madrid Peace Conference of 1992 and since the signing of the Declaration of Principles with the Palestinians (13 September 1994) and since the signing of a peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (October 1994) there is definitely a new diplomatic, political, psychological, sociological and cultural set of realities in Israel and the Middle East. Certainly when one reflects back only a few years - to the Gulf War of 1991 and the threat of nuclear and chemical warheads descending upon Israel from Iraq during that year - we are mindful of how different the situation in Israel has become during the last three or four years.

There are many signs of the new peace atmosphere in Israel today. I will list only a few for you:
Tourism: Tourism has returned to Israel in large, unprecedented numbers. Compared to the Gulf War and to the early years of the Intifada (the Palestinian uprising in the Territories which began in December 1987), when few tourists visited Israel because of the security situation, tourism is booming in Israel. In addition to Jews and Jewish groups from all over the world, Christian groups are visiting Israel in large numbers (for example, forty-five Christian groups come from Korea alone each month to Israel!).

The Media: Israeli journalists are now reporting on the Peace Process in a positive and comprehensive way. Despite all the problems and obstacles, the peace talks are always front page news, and it is often good news. Moreover, we now wake up in the morning and find Israeli journalists (both print and electronic) reporting from Amman, Tunis, Damascus, the Gulf States and even Gaza. There is unquestionably a new face to the way the Israeli media presents the realities and the hopes for peace, alongside the danger and the destruction of terrorist incidents.

The Economy: Even our economy is improving. New markets for Israeli products and personnel are opening up in formerly forbidden places - in the Far East (China, Indonesia, etc.), in countries of the Middle East (Jordan, Egypt, Morocco), in some of the Gulf States, and in the former Communist countries of Eastern. Europe. The Peace Agreements give hope and signal stability, and therefore according to a recent speech of our Prime Minister, Mr. Rabin, to our Industrialists' Association, there has never been more interest by foreign investors in Israel than this year.

The Mood of the People: Hope is in the air. Thousands of Israelis are already travelling to Jordan. The mood is generally upbeat and positive, and the reason is clear. For the first time in our lives in Israel, we can actually envision the end of the cycle of war. There is even less violence, despite what you may read in your newspapers or see on television. Most of the violence is restricted to the Territories (Judea, Samaria and Gaza) and most of it is done by small groups of extremist Islamic fundamentalists.

But I must add a word of caution: all of this is mixed with much anxiety and fear and with many doubts and questions: Can Chairman Arafat turn from a dictator to a democrat? And can he control Islamic fundamentalist rejectionists who violently try to disrupt the Peace Process? Can Gaza become a viable society? Will international assistance help prevent Gaza from disintegrating into chaos? Is Syria serious about peace? Or does it just want territory? Will Syria end its state of war with Israel and expel terrorist groups from Damascus? These and many other questions and doubts linger. Nevertheless, I believe that the mood in Israel is overwhelmingly hopeful and optimistic, reflecting the wishes of the people of Israel to end the state of war and to enter into a new era in which they can live in peace with their neighbours and reap the benefits of peace for themselves.

II - The Current State of Interreligious Relations in Israel
On 16 January 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War and the night before the scuds from Iraq began landing in Israel, a group of Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered together in Jerusalem to found the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. In contrast to the ominous danger of war, this was a bold step which signalled faith in the future, and especially in the ability of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to contribute to a more peaceful future in Israel and the Middle East. After four years, we can now report that we have fifty-four different organizations cooperating with us in trying to promote greater mutual understanding among people of different faith communities in our country.
I wish to highlight for you some of the salient features of interreligious life in Israel:

Most dialogue in Israel is Christian-Jewish dialogue. Most of it is done by "expatriates", i.e. by people from the West who come to Israel with a tradition and culture of dialogue, diversity and pluralism. This includes many Western Jews (from the United States and Europe) who have made Israel their home, and many Christians from the U.S. and Europe who represent Christian churches and Christian organizations in Israel and often become long-term residents in our country.

Most of the dialogue has been on theological, intellectual, spiritual and cal issues, such as the roots of Christianity in Judaism and in the Land of Israel, the Jewishness of Jesus and the history of Judaism and Christianity in the land in the first centuries of the Common Era. Moreover, there has been a consistent effort to study each other's sources on common themes, such as Creation, Revelation and Redemption, and to try to learn and experience each other's traditions, holidays, rituals and holy places in the special Political issues have been avoided in the Christian-Jewish atmosphere of Israel.

Political issues have been avoided in the Christian Dialogue in Israel because they are too divisive. Christians do not agree among themselves about the future of sovereignty in the land of Israel, nor do they agree about the nature of Jerusalem. The Jewish community in Israel is divided on these issues as well. Accordingly, we have agreed to respectively disagree on political issues and we have tried not to let these disagreements prevent us from learning about each other and with each other in order to promote mutual understanding.

Much of the dialogue between Jews and Christians in Israel takes place with visiting Jewish, Christian and Interfaith Groups. When visiting Christian groups come to Israel, they often engage Jews in discussions on "The Meaning of the State of Israel for the Jewish People and for Jewish Survival in the Contemporary World". At the same time, there is often a desire to understand Biblical Israel by walking in the footsteps of the Bible (the Old and the New Testaments). This is usually perceived not only as a way to understand historical Israel but also as a way for Christians to deepen their Christian faith. More and more Christian groups are coming to visit Israel all the time as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Many of these groups (although not all of them) use the opportunity for interfaith dialogue as well.

Very little interreligious dialogue has taken place with Muslims in Israel so far. In my judgement, the reasons for this have been political and sociological rather than religious. Israeli Muslims tend to lead separate lives from Jews, in separate towns and villages, with relatively little interaction. Neither the religious leadership of the Muslims or the Jews in Israel has shown any interest in this religious dialogue so far. However there have been some small changes in this in the last year. Our organization has begun a Jewish-Muslim dialogue which is attracting much interest and shows much promise for the future.

Many encounters- between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs (mostly Muslims but also some Christians) have taken place in a non-religious, secularist humanistic framework under the title: "Education for Arab-Jewish Coexistence in Israel". This kind of encounter, which has occurred mostly in Arab and Jewish towns and villages in the Galilee, has focussed on human relations and intergroup relations without reference to religion. It has been carried on by left-wing humanistic Kibbutz Jews and secularized Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) who have usually seen religion as something divisive and destructive rather than a force for unity cooperation and coexistence.

There are some signs that this is beginning to change now as religion is recognized as one central factor which is necessary to understand the identity of the Jew and the Arab, in addition to other factors such as language, history, culture, customs and ceremonies. Under the common theme of "Understanding One Another", religious Jews and Arabs who have entered into dialogue through interreligious relations and secular/cultural Jews and Arabs who have been engaged in education for Arab-Jewish coexistence, have begun to get together in innovative educational seminars and conferences to share ideas and strategies designed to promote better understanding of each other's identity and culture. This is the result of a growing realization in Israeli society in recent years that since we must live together, or even side by side, we might as well try to come to know and understand one another better. It is in our common interest to do so.

III Towards the Future: The Interface of the Peace Process on Interreligious and Intercultural Relations in Israel
As I indicated at the beginning of this talk, I believe that the Peace Agreements already signed, and those still to be signed in the not-too-distant future with the Palestinians and with Syria, are changing the political, physical, social and psychological landscape in Israel. This will undoubtedly also have an impact on the future of interreligious and intercultural relations in Israel and the region. Peace will open up new doors and new necessities for understanding our neighbours in much more serious and systematic ways than have been done in the past. And we will need to begin expanding our dialogue beyond the borders of Israel by including Palestinians from the Palestinian Autonomy, Jordanians, Egyptians and other Christians and Muslims who will want to enter into dialogue with us. Some of this is already beginning to happen in small but not insignificant ways which, I believe, point the way towards the future

Some examples:
In a conference which our organization sponsored in Israel last June (1994), four young Palestinian Muslims from Gaza participated in the dialogue. These young men, who were active in a Peace Movement in Gaza and who were serving as social welfare interns in Israeli Arab villages through a program entitled "Interns for Peace", would not have been able to participate in such a seminar a year or two ago.

During the past year a group of Israeli rabbis in an organization called "Rabbis for Human Rights" met with some imams (Muslim religious leaders) from Gaza at a kibbutz just inside Israel for a series of dialogues. Such an activity was inconceivable in the past.
A group of Palestinian Christian and Israeli Jewish clergy has been meeting regularly in an informal unpublicized way to study together each other's sacred texts and to learn from one another.

These may be just small examples but I believe that they signal some new beginnings and represent new openings.

In the past, Palestinians have told those of us who are active in interfaith and intercultural dialogue in Israel in unpublicized off-the-record conversations, that "there will be no dialogue until the occupation is over" or that "there will be no dialogue until we are equal partners, until we have our own state". Now, with significant progress in the peace process, and with more to come this summer, this is beginning to change. There is more interest developing among Palestinian religious leaders in reconciliation with the Jews and the Israelis. Over the summer I met with one of the most influential Palestinian Christian religious leaders in the Old City who spoke to me of the need for increased efforts at reconciliation as the peace process continues to move forward. Now that the feeling of equal partnership is becoming more and more of a reality, there appears to be more willingness to meet the other half-way and to come to know him or her in genuine dialogue.

The realization has begun to set in that if the politicians and generals, who were only yesterday bitter enemies, can sit down and talk with one another, so can religious Christians, Muslims and Jews in Israel and the Region begin to get to know one another as well. If Chairman Arafat can negotiate with Prime Minister Rabin, then Palestinian Christian and Muslim religious leaders ought to be able to meet with Israeli rabbis in order to promote peaceful relations among the two peoples, the Palestinian people and the Jewish people.

In addition to all the developments on the ground in Israel, there are also many changes abroad, in the United States and in Europe and in other places which have a direct and often indirect effect on our work in interreligious and intercultural relations in Israel.

Some examples of recent changes:
As Muslims become more and more of a significant minority in many countries in the West, they are entering into dialogue with Christians and Jews in more and more places in the world.
In the United States, for example, twenty synagogues have begun Jewish-Muslim dialogues during the past three years. In Europe, Jewish, Christian and Muslim theological students, teachers and interested persons have been meeting in Bendorf Germany, for twenty-two years for an annual JCM (Jewish-Christian-Muslim) seminar. I was privileged to attend this seminar this past March, and I confess that it opened my mind and my heart to the possibilities of trialogue with Jews, Muslims and Christians. Such a trialogue is already being planned for Israel for next summer (1996).

The Agreement between the Vatican and Israel which was signed just over a year and a half ago, has changed the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people in a major way. This was not just a diplomatic agreement. It was a recognition of the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish People everywhere in the world. This has removed a major stumbling block in Catholic-Jewish relations and has opened up new possibilities for the dialogue everywhere. And in Israel, where diplomatic relations are now established between the Vatican and Israel, there is a new atmosphere of openness and frank discussion between Catholic officials and Israeli officials.

The interest of Christians in Israel continues to grow from year to year, especially as we move towards the year 2000. Pilgrimage tours abound. Study opportunities continue to be developed and nurtured and enrollments are full. The Institute of Holy Land Studies on Mount Zion, for example, continues to attract more and more long-term and short-term Christian students from all over the world for programs in the study of the Bible, Biblical History, Bible Translation, the Geography of the Holy Land, and Modern Middle East Studies. Similarly the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, the Bible Study Program of the Sisters of Sion and other similar institutes are attracting more and more Christian scholars, ministers, pastors, church leaders and laypersons to take a semester off and come to study in Israel, to learn the Hebrew language, the basic texts of Judaism and Christianity, to become immersed in the culture of the Land, to deepen their Christian knowlege and faith, while becoming more familiar and comfortable with Judaism and the Jewish people. All of these developments place Israel in center stage in the field of interreligious relations in the world. So much of the attention of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders is focussed on Israel, and especially on Jerusalem.

What does all this portend for the future? I would suggest to you that the future will be better than the past.
For the first time we have a real possibility of living in an Israel and a new Middle East in which there will be no more wars.

This will mean that conflicts are and will be solved by peaceful means through negotiations. This will eventually include religious and interreligious conflicts as well.
Peace agreements are abounding in our region, but they are only diplomatic pieces of paper. Yet they create new frameworks and open up new opportunities for coexistence and cooperation.
In order for there to be real peace, we will need to work hard at promoting peaceful relations between peoples. This is not the work of diplomats and politicians alone. It is also the work of religious leaders and educators all over the world and in Israel. This is the great opportunity and creative challenge that we face now. May God grant us the wisdom and foresight, the intelligence and creativity, the courage and commitment to accept this challenge with optimism and to take advantage of the exciting new opportunities that now exist to establish and solidify peaceful relations in Israel, in the Middle East, and wherever else possible in our troubled world.

Dr. Ronald Kronish, a rabbi and educator who has lived in Israel for sixteen years, is the Director of the Ingerreligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel (ICCI). - Text of a lecture give the Sidic Centre in Rome on 21 November1995


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