Two Israelis from contrasting ends of their country’s political spectrum were among the young peacemakers who gathered at Drew University for a two-week conference on religion and conflict resolution.
The West Bank rabbi and the Jerusalem interfaith activist were among 24 emerging Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders who gathered for a chance to meet and engage with adversaries in their native lands.
“We created a safe zone where they can do this sort of thing,” said Jonathan Golden, who organized the Drew Institute on Religion and Conflict Resolution. The conference ran at the Madison campus from June 10 to July 3.
“Some of the people here could never meet with a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim in their home countries in such a public open way,” said Golden. “In fact, some are here at their own peril, knowing there might be people in their home countries who would not be pleased about their being here.”
Until he arrived in Madison, Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt had never engaged in peacemaking efforts. He lives in the Gush Etzion settlement on the West Bank, where, he said, “we have a lot of trouble with terrorists.”
But, he added quickly, “on the other hand we have a lot of Palestinian and Israeli people who want to change the situation, to live together peacefully and stop the war.”
Another Israeli, Yael Gidanyan, also sees the possibility for compromise, although perhaps not on Rosenblatt’s terms. Gidanyan, a graduate student at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is a volunteer at the Israel-based Interfaith Encounter Association.
“I don’t necessarily believe in two states,” she told NJJN as she sat beside the rabbi. “I could see…one state with equal rights for everybody — a binational, multi-religious state — or two states with very close borders between them. Jews can live anywhere they want, but Palestinians should have the same rights.”
Gidanyan said she foresees “a big change in the Palestinian society.”
“Many of them are meeting Israelis and starting to see Israel as something that is going to stay there. There is a kind of compromising,” she said.
A bit of compromising between the two Israelis came when Rosenblatt was asked whether he might reconnect with Gidanyan when they return home.
“My field is with the rabbis and the yeshivot and religious institutes. Her field is completely different,” he said.
“I’m not sure actually,” was her response. “We could have many good cooperations because I work with schools and I could bring the Palestinian connections I have, and maybe we could have other encounters.”
“Yes,” Rosenblatt said. “I think the problem is that people don’t know each other. When you meet the other person and you talk to him, you see him as a human being.”
It was the sort of result Golden said he had hoped would emerge from the conference.
“We hope that when the people go back home they can maintain contact. We are trying to build a network of people who can work with us in the future,” he said.
Delegates to the conference also included three Palestinians — an imam, a Muslim woman, and a Christian woman, none of whom were available for interviews.
Other participants included two Egyptians — one an Islamic cleric, the other a Coptic Christian lay leader. Fearing potential repercussions at home, both men asked not to be photographed or identified by name — possibly because they met face-to-face with Israelis during the seminar.
Interviewed separately, the two men disagreed strongly about the quality of their people’s lives in a country governed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“For a Coptic, in Mubarak’s time it was better than it is now,” said the Christian. “There was a lot of pressure when the Islamic party got control. There is a lot of persecution against the Copts. I feel like the country has disintegrated. We don’t have security. We don’t have law. The street mobs control everything.”
Reacting in Arabic that was translated by a Syrian-born interpreter, the Muslim disagreed.
Under President Muhammad Morsi, a Muslim person “can express himself more openly than during the Mubarak time,” said the imam, a teacher at a mosque in Alexandria. “But for the country as a whole, it is too early to say whether things are better. The revolution is still going, and things haven’t settled yet.”
Asked whether he agreed that life under the Muslim Brotherhood is becoming more threatening for Christians, the imam said, “The main problem Christians are facing is not because of the government. It is because of the people themselves. Muslims and Christians are unable to communicate and get to know each other. It is a myth in many people’s heads.”
Despite their disagreements, the two men work together in their hometown of Alexandria, bringing young Christians and Muslims together for interfaith dialogues.
Before the conference at Drew, neither one had ever met a Jew.
“It was a very important step and a very important point of his experience to meet people he never dealt with before,” the translator said of the imam. “He met very good people who were Jews and Israelis. He can’t make a judgment about Israel. If you meet one Muslim you can’t say all Muslims are bad. Overall, his experience with the Jewish people he met here was very positive.”
His Christian countryman agreed. “I never thought I would even know a Jew in my life,” he said. “Now, and in such a short time, I have five or six Jewish people that I actually call friends.”
The conference also included a panel discussion featuring Rabbi Michael Melchior, former member of Knesset and former Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs as well as a Christian pastor from Nigeria and a Muslim leader from Indonesia.