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Israeli-Arab mayor, Reform rabbi deliver message of peace
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Israeli-Arab mayor, Reform rabbi deliver message of peace

At Drew, leaders of Jerusalem group talk of interreligious cooperation

Left, Mayor Issa Jaber, of the mostly Muslim city of Abu-Ghosh, said mosques in Israel are education centers where people are taught “about tolerance, about peaceful life — not for terror or killing innocent people.” Right, Rabbi Ronald
Left, Mayor Issa Jaber, of the mostly Muslim city of Abu-Ghosh, said mosques in Israel are education centers where people are taught “about tolerance, about peaceful life — not for terror or killing innocent people.” Right, Rabbi Ronald

To a Miami-born rabbi and the Muslim mayor of an Israeli Arab city near Jerusalem, peace between their two peoples is possible, whether or not politicians ever reach a treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

For more than 10 years, Reform Rabbi Ronald Kronish and Mayor Issa Jaber of Abu-Ghosh have worked together to foster dialogue between their two peoples.

Kronish, who has lived in Israel for 37 years, is the founder and director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Jerusalem. An arm of Rabbis for Human Rights, its mission is “to harness the teachings and values of the three Abrahamic faiths” in pursuit of reconciliation and coexistence. It is one of several groups dedicated to improving relations between Israeli Jews and Muslims.

Jaber, an Israeli-Arab and mayor of the majority Muslim city 10 miles from Jerusalem, has been working with the rabbi for most of the time since the ICC was begun. 

Together they addressed the topic of “Coexistence and Interreligious Cooperation in Israel and Palestine” on Oct. 31 at Chapman Hall on the Drew University campus in Madison. Some 100 people were in attendance.

Leading off the discussion, Kronish said his group’s main task was “to educate each other for mutual understanding and respect and find ways to work together to improve the lives of Arabs and Jews.”

“Peaceful coexistence is our goal. Dialogue and education are our methods,” he said. Rather than seek treaties between nations, his organization works to foster peaceful relations between people of different nationalities.

The ICC brings together Palestinian Arabs — Muslim or Christian — and Jews — Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Orthodox. They speak in Hebrew and Arabic, using professional facilitators to enable group members to listen to one another. “We try to hear each other’s narratives,” said the rabbi.

Jaber, a native of Abu-Ghosh, said that in Israel Muslims and Jews “don’t know much about each other. We live together but we live isolated from each other. So the encounter of different groups is very important.”

He said that inside Israel most schools have either Jewish or Muslim student bodies, but Muslim children are taught Hebrew, whereas Jewish schools do not teach Arabic. “As a result,” he said, “we put a lot of prejudices and stereotypes upon each other.” 

Jaber said mosques throughout Israel are being used as “education centers, where we explain to visitors about Islam, about tolerance, about peaceful life — not for terror or killing innocent people, which is very far from believing in Islamic values.”

He said the role of peacemakers such as imams, rabbis, teachers, social workers, and parents “is to produce as much as possible people-to-people peace — not to trust Benjamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas or what other politicians are going to do.”

One example of bringing people together was a program launched by Kronish’s group, Kick Start Peace, which brings young Jews and Muslims together to play soccer. The Israel Tennis Center ran a similar program. But, the rabbi said, “most young people don’t interact with one another unless something is done.”

Asked about the contents of textbooks, Kronish said that because all education is controlled by the Israeli government, “as you can guess, there is no teaching of hatred of Jews in Arab textbooks [in Israel], whereas in the West Bank and Gaza it is a different story.” Still, he said, in both Jewish and Arab schools in Israel and Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza, “no one is teaching much about ‘the other.’” 

He said Jewish and Arab students typically never hear the other side’s version of history unless they meet at a coexistence program. “Teaching the double narrative is not kosher in Israel these days,” Kronish said.

Jaber called for “comprehensive reform” of school curricula “in order to open up a new relationship toward each other. Otherwise we will continue to live isolated from each other.”

Kronish said that after the Oslo peace process, “for the first time in our histories, the Jews of Israel recognized the existence of the Palestinian people, and the Palestinians recognized the existence of Israel and its right to security.”

Although the Oslo accords did not bring peace, they did create “a psychological change in the region. There is now a Palestinian people, and even the prime minister of Israel will say that,” Kronish said.

His intergroup conversations began by forming personal relationships. “You first need to build trust with people who are willing to hear the history of the other side.” 

A good place to start is searching for common threads in the stories of Jewish and Palestinian refugees. But, the rabbi added, such groups need facilitators to “change the hearts and minds of people with the ability to listen to the other side’s narrative.”

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