Urging optimism and religious dialogue, a Jerusalem-based rabbi and a Palestinian educator told an audience at Seton Hall University in South Orange Oct. 11 that peace is possible.
“Most people in Israel see the conflict only in national terms and see religions as the problem and not the solution. We say ‘no,’” said Rabbi Ron Kronish, who last spring retired as founding director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, where he is now senior adviser. “We see religious texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a way to heal the conflict, as a way to show that these religions have a positive role if they are properly understood — not the way they are often portrayed in some of the media and the Internet.”
Kronish and Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, a Jerusalem-born Muslim and academic now serving as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke at the fifth annual Dr. Marcia Robbins Wilf Lecture — a program of SHU’s Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies. The two speakers took turns at the microphone before an audience that included friends and supporters of the fund.
Dajani, a member of Jerusalem’s prominent Daoudi clan, founded the Palestinian movement Wasatia, which promotes moderate Islam.
“There are lots of verses in the Koran in which it says that God has made a covenant with the Jews and lots of verses in the Koran which talk about Christians and say God has put kindness in their hearts,” said Dajani.
“We try to show that Islam is more than the terrorism of Al Qaida or ISIS,” said Kronish. “We try to hear the narrative of the other side. Most people only learn their own narrative.”
But, Kronish added, “dialogue is not enough,” pointing out that his multifaith organization “has been very active in combatting Jewish hate crimes and Muslim hate crimes. We work together wherever we can — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — to call for solidarity, to offer empathy, and to engage in educational and social projects together. ”
Dajani, a self-described “moderate” with a militant background in the Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had once believed that “to talk about peace was treason, and to me it was either us or them. Armed struggle and violence would be the only way to liberate Palestine, and if we cannot liberate it we will do like Samson, just walk into the temple and bring it down over everybody’s head.”
Dajani also said he was taught the Holocaust was “Zionist propaganda in order to gain sympathy for the Jewish cause against our cause, and the Palestinians were paying the price for a crime we did not have anything to do with.”
But his attitude changed when he took his father to Jewish doctors in Israel for cancer treatment at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. “For the first time I awakened to see ‘the other’ and not to look at an enemy,” he said.
After he reconsidered his political stance, Dajani said, he learned that “moderation has a bad name, like peace. When you say ‘moderate,’ people think ‘soft,’ and when you say ‘extremist,’ people think ‘power.’ In reality being moderate needs more courage than being extremist.”
Indeed, as an American studies professor at Al-Quds University on the West Bank, Dajani risked threats and condemnation for taking Palestinian students on an educational trip to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. “It was a very shocking experience for them,” he said.
Later, he took another group of students to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem.
Dajani said he wanted to teach that that “if you feed hatred, one day it will blow up in your face.” Speaking of “the role of empathy and reconciliation,” he wanted his Palestinian students “to witness the suffering and agony of the Jews and at the same time take Israeli students to a Palestinian refugee camp and let them hear the story from 1948 about the suffering of the Palestinians.”
Dajani was eventually forced to resign from the university in 2014 after months of death threats and intimidation. He now lives in Washington.
In his work, Kronish said, he heeded the advice of a colleague who insisted that dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians should not “start with history.”
“You’ll talk about the ’48 war and you’ll never finish. Who shot first and who shot second and who’s responsible? Start with envisioning the future,” Kronish said his friend urged him. The aim of dialogues should be to answer the questions “What would you like to see and how would you like to get there?”
In an interview before their presentation, Dajani told NJ Jewish News he hopes the latest round of Palestinian and Israeli violence “will be resolved quickly with a reconciliation. Maybe leaders will be awakened by it in order to proceed with the peace process. I think the Palestinian Authority realizes it is not in its interest to have the violence escalate. Escalating it will not lead anywhere.”
“Those who call it an Intifada are moving a little too quickly,” said Kronish, who was raised in Miami and moved to Israel 36 years ago. “They have short memories. The first and second Intifadas were much more widespread and much more violent. I am hopeful that this will calm down. Nobody in the establishment on either side wants it to go on much longer. Both sides have to do their share in making real steps for peace.”
“The occupation is the elephant in the room,” said Dajani. “It is the cause of all the turmoil that is taking place, and the best way is for Israel to recognize the state of Palestine and for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. We should start negotiations from there.”
Asked whether dismantling West Bank settlements might result in the turmoil and the type of Hamas-led violence that followed Israel’s evacuation of Gaza, Kronish said, “I’m not a political scientist and I have no perspective about what is going to happen in the West Bank, but it is our interest to make peace with the Palestinians. If we have real peace, the violence will stop on all sides.”
“The story of Gaza was a unilateral withdrawal that empowered the radicals of Hamas,” said Dajani. “If there is a state in the West Bank, this will empower the moderates.”