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Holy Land envoys find common ground in NJ
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Holy Land envoys find common ground in NJ

Drew Univ. institute examines religious conflict transformation

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Members of the Nigerian delegation enjoy the camaraderie with members of the local community at the end of the conference.
Members of the Nigerian delegation enjoy the camaraderie with members of the local community at the end of the conference.

Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew from the Middle East walked into a conference on religion and conflict transformation in Madison — along with seven others from their region of the world. By the time the gathering was drawing to a close, they had changed their name from the Israel/Palestine delegation to the Holy Land delegation. They described, in a public forum on July 26, what it was like to get to know each other in such a venue and on a deep and serious level.

“We have fear from each other. It’s very hard the gap between us,” said George Hanania, a Christian Orthodox lawyer who identified his hometown as “Bethlehem, Palestine,” in broken, soft-spoken English.

“Yosef,” a rabbi and educator from the West Bank (who asked that his name not be used for fear of becoming the target of violence), described the ways that finding commonalities among the three Abrahamic religions had helped him and the other two bridge the gap. But more specifically, he said, discovering deep similarities between Judaism and Islam moved the conversation forward. “Halacha and Sharia: We — both Jews and Muslims — we both live by law,” he said. “There are values that are common to both religions — family, dignity, respect. So we think this is a big opportunity to build something — a society that has room for everyone in it.”

The “Holy Land” group — 10 delegates including Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Jews from settlements in the West Bank (mainly Gush Etzion) as well as Jerusalem — was just one of five presenting their final projects on July 26 at Drew University, where a colorful commingling of languages and distinctive religious garb was evidence that the participants were not from New Jersey. 

In fact the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders, drawn from clergy and the laity, had come from far afield — besides the Holy Land contingent, they hailed from Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, and Pakistan. They had all responded to an invitation from Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict to take part in its second Institute on Religion and Conflict Transformation, July 9-28. Charged with developing ways to reduce sectarian clashes and finding paths to making peace, they had been asked to participate because of their work in their home countries addressing religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence. 

CRCC director Jonathan Golden said the institute employs interfaith dialogue as a mode of conflict transformation. “Religion is one of many root causes of conflict,” he said. “We should never underestimate the power of religion to motivate people to do both good and bad.” (The inaugural institute was held in 2013.)

The institute included seminars and workshops led by scholars, activists, government officials, and senior religious leaders. Off-campus excursions included visits to synagogues, churches, and mosques, providing some participants with their first peek inside a house of worship belonging to a religion different from their own. Each group was charged with creating a project to implement upon their return to their homes to address a specific aspect of intolerance. 

Despite wide-ranging differences on basic issues — which ranged from life lived against a backdrop of extreme violence to advocates working in countries that do not even recognize certain religious minorities among them — nearly every group saw reaching youngsters through education as at least one important way forward. 

“Through the intensive training they receive, these emerging leaders will be better equipped to manifest a positive alternative influence on their congregations, constituencies, and communities…,” said the institute’s founder and codirector, Chris Taylor, who also serves as dean of Drew’s College of Liberal Arts and professor of comparative religion.

But for the members of the Holy Land group, as Yosef put it, “The most meaningful experience we had here is not necessarily the projects we will be going home with and implementing; it’s the process we experienced as individuals and as a group here at Drew.”

He described what it was like to share their individual dreams for their home countries along with their fears of the “other,” the traumas they have all experienced, and even the stereotypes they hold of one another. 

“We actually told each other our stereotypes, which is very intimidating,” Yosef said. “It’s more intimidating when you’re the one telling your stereotypes, as opposed to hearing the stereotypes they think.” He described how “each and every one of us got up and said what his fears are and, more than that, who the extremists are around us — who do we need to stand up to when we go back home.” 

Despite some shared pessimism, Yosef said he thinks their final project — which entails making arrangements for families from the different faith groups to interact with each other and for student exchanges — “will have an immense impact back home.” 

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