[JStreet] West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace
[JStreet] Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian Blogger Lunch Session

[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace, featuring Greg Khalil, President and Co-Founder, The Kairos Project; Salam Al-Marayati, Executive Director, Muslim Public Affairs Council; Mark Pelavin, Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Maureen Shea, Former Director, Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and former Churches For Middle East Peace Chair.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling introduces the session; he's part of The Shalom Center which works for peace in the Middle East, peace for human beings and for the environment; the org has long been involved in this wor through its annual Tent of Abraham celebration and through the work of (my teacher) Rabbi Arthur Waskow who would be here today except that he was in a devastating car accident some weeks ago and is still rehabilitating from that experience.

"Jews, Muslims, and Christians clearly have a long connection to what is known to some as the Holy Land," says Rabbi Liebling. Our three communities can work together to bring peace; how to do that will be the subject of this morning's panel. There are challenges to our communities working together in this country to bring peace, but we need to remember that at its origins this is not a religious conflict but rather a territorial one. "Religion can be used to remind us all of the interconnection and interdependence of all humanity."

Moderator Ron Young from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East begins with "There are still people who say, if were going to talk about peace in the Middle East, for God's sake keep religion out of it!" He tells a story about getting together in 1987 ago with a group of fifty leaders from all three traditions to begin this work, all of whom agreed that they weren't sure how this kind of peace work was possible but all felt called by their religious traditions to begin doing the work.

At that session, a prominent Palestinian businessman named Sami [I missed his last name -- anyone?] from Kansas City said "I have long had the deepest respect for Judaism but I have a bitter hatred for Zionism." Rabbi Arnie Wolf said, "I have never met Sami before; I hope we can work together for peace; but the left side of my heart is Judaism and the right side of my heart is Zionism and I can't take my heart apart for Sami or anyone else." The encouraging thing that happened at the coffee break, says Young, is that no one left the room, and Sami and Arnie headed straight for each other and engaged in intense dialogue. That kind of thing happened repeatedly, and at the end of 2 days these 50 religious leaders endorsed a two-state solution and spoke out in favor of self-determination for both communities.

The format for the session is this: first Ron Young will ask some big questions for all of the panelists to answer, then we'll begin to work from questions written down on index cards by people in the room. Here's the first of those bg questions:

In the last few years, there's been a convergence of advocacy positions among a range of groups in DC which heretofore had found each other problematic, simplistically pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. The American Task Force on Palestine; Americans for Peace Now; the Arab-American Institute; Churches for Middle East Peace; Brit Tzedek v'Shalom; the Muslim Affairs Council -- we've mostly been on the same page in terms of what we advocate the US Government should do. My question to the panelists is: the scene locally is not always the same as it is nationally. So these forces, which are significant nationally, are very significant but locally it gets messier. It is more complicated. I want each of you to comment on reminding us why you think this religious dimension is important, and talk a bit about the scene locally as you see it: what advice you have for people who want to work together. And also, think about how if some other community is going to work with our community, here are some things you should be cautious about or sensitive to.

Our first respondent is Mark Pelavin. "The local scene is as different as there are localities," he says. The diversity of discussion in communities is fascinating to him, and how different the conversation is in different places, how it's driven by the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in various communities. "The local level is where the most interesting things are happening, and also where the worst things are happening," he says.

"The reason why interreligious coalitions for peace can work is that religious groups have a powerful, unique voice to bring." We can speak in moral terms, values terms. "What are the values at stake in this conversation?" The reason why it can work, when it can work, is that we come together to advance our values and to discover shared values. "When people want to work together, find values, positions, to agree on." The flipside is when people make up their minds that they don't want to work together, "there's always a reason not to work with someone, to reject an outstretched hand." Coalitions work where we build common ground, focus on common values, not get lost in particular policy details -- which have to be wrestled with, to be sure, but that may not be the role of a religious community.

Salam Al-Marayati answers the question next, thanking JStreet for involving Muslim-Americans in this discourse which is so important to both communities. "On the local scene, I agree with Mark, it's different in different arenas." He speaks about 2 arenas in LA, where he's from. "On the one hand, we have arenas where Muslim and Jewish organizations meet privately but are not willing to talk publicly because they fear repercussions and attacks from the right for having such a dialogue. I think that is an outrage that we still have this kind of fear and intimidation." The other model is one where there is openness, "and a commitment to dialogue based on mutual respect. Not agreement or concurrence on positions, not imposing positions on one another, but understanding the different narratives, respecting those narratives, and looking for what is of common interest.

He speaks about the program New Ground, in partnership with Progressive Jewish Alliance, which builds civic engagement among young Muslims and young Jews over the course of a one-year program. "We have to do away with trying to convert one another," he says. "I don't expect you to promote Islamic advocacy and values; you should not expect me to promote Zionist values. However, Islam and Judaism have much in common in terms of justice, and when I look at JStreet, I don't only look at it as 'this is a Jewish group,' but I see the J as 'this is a group based in justice.'" We need to involved both of our communities in the joint work toward peace and justice.

Maureen Shea says that on a local level, we can look at what's being done nationally as a base for our work. Churches for Middle East Peace just did a letter signed by Christians, Muslims and Jews. "This can give you a starting point so you can build on work that's already being done," she points out. Often in her community people think they're selling out, not taking strong enough positions; "we do have to do some accomodating, and that isn't always easy for our constituencies." She's gotten pushback from Episcopalians and others who are deeply concerned about the situation and who hope a two-state solution is still viable, and also from others who are coming from a different place.

A particular problem for us, she says: "a few years ago an Arab came to this country and was asked at a press conference, when did you convert [to Christianity]? And he said, 'two thousand years ago.' The issue for us is often that people don't understand that there is a viable indigenous Christian community in the Holy Land." That becomes a delicate issue. Orthodox, Catholics, Quakers, Episcopalians, Lutherans -- "we all have our institutions that are viable and alive, and our people there, in the Holy Land. When we talk about what's going on we're not just talking about holy sites, but about real people. That sometimes goes right over people's heads, and it's an important piece to understand."

The ability to work together is incredibly important, she says. When you go to lobby Congress, the staffers have a certain "look" on their faces when they know you're there to talk about the Middle East, and it's valuable to be part of a multifaith coalition which says, "we support a two-state solution; it's best for Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians," and you can see the relief wash across their faces!

Greg Khalil wants to talk about why this work is important. He spent four years living in Ramallah as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2004-2008; he's American-born but is also Palestinian Christian, with a huge family in Bethlehem (more than 100 cousins!) "Part of my job when I was there was to brief Western politicians, diplomats, VIPs, on status of negotiations," he explains. Before the Annapolis talks, he came to Washington to do some advance work, and was at two cocktail parties one night. At the first party he was there with a religious leader, a national figure in the gay rights movement, who described the experience of going to Israel which he loves and then visiting the Palestinian side which he also grew to love, and he felt duty-bound by his faith to act when he got home to community. Then Khalil went to the next cocktail party that night, with a friend who's a conservative Catholic and part of the religious right, and he described the exact same transformation during his visit. "To me this was mindblowing." Both of these men had had life-changing experiences in the Holy Land, which committed them to working for peace for both Israelis and Palestinians because that's the only position consonant with their own faith -- and yet the two men in question couldn't be further apart on the American political spectrum.

"Around the world billions of people see the conflict in terms of their faith, but there are many people who if approached properly, if allowed to have a state where they can love Israel and love Palestinians too and allowed to see that as expression of their faith -- this can be a powerful force for change." All of us in the room are part of that, he says, and all of us are committed to a just peace "not just for Palestinians, but for Israel too."

Our moderator adds, "In many cities of the United States where there are longtime, established interfaith organizations, the organizations still resist getting involved in this issue because they fear it will break apart their interfaith coalition. So they stick to Thanksgiving services and recycling. I'm for both, but I think these councils are out of date! That's one of the challenges to you when you go home: what's the interfaith organization that exists in your community, and can you explore their positions on this issue?"

When we think of evangelicals, we think of John Hagee and Christians United to Take Israel to Hell. But that's a skewed understanding of the conservative evangelical community!... Greg, if you would, say a bit more about the conservative and evangelical community, and how we can find the people in that community who support a two-state solution?

Khalil tells us about taking conservative evangelical Republican around the Palestinian territories. "We have a lot of preconceptions about a lot of different groups, and most of the time we're wrong," he says. "I had a learning process myself as a Palestinian-American, not only with Jewish Americans but also with evangelicals. This is a diverse community, they're sophisticated and educated; we hear caricatures about John Hagee, and I don't support what he does, but I imagine some of those caricatures even about him aren't true." Khalil works with a lot of megachurch leaders. "We're not talking about theology here, but theology does instruct worldview." That's why some Christians invest so much money in helping projects related to the settlements this year -- "this has a theological basis." The majority of evangelicals don't share Hagee's theology; they view Israel as having a special place in God's plan but they don't share his endtimes theology.

"How do you find these people?" Organizations like the Kairos project, Churches for Middle East Peace, and all of the people on this panel will help direct you to various communities if you're interested in exploring these connections.

After the Gaza war, there's a new sense of suffering, a new sense of trouble and crisis; help us as a group that largely is not Muslim to understand what sensitivities there are in the Muslim community about the Gaza war, and help us think about how we should approach Muslims after the Gaza war perhaps with some new sensitivities we didn't have before?

Salam Al-Marayati says, one issue is that Palestine is still critical to the hearts and minds of "practically every Muslim in the world." As you move further away from the middle East the situation becomes more passionate, emotional, extreme. The Pakistani prime minister has to be sensitive about his relationship with the United States because of Pakistani sentiments on this issue. "It is not just an Arab issue. It is a universal issue." This has been the situation and will continue to be the situation.

For religious reasons, he says, Jerusalem plays a central role; it's the place where the Qur'an says the Prophet ascended to heaven, so it holds religious and historical value for Muslims, and there's also the human rights value. "The Prophet says that one human soul is worth more than the Ka'aba. Human rights and dignity are more important than religious tradition or ritual." That understanding is critical for effective dialogue with Muslims on this issue.

"The pain and suffering that Palestinians have had to endure is something that many Muslims feel is swept under the rug." It's not part of the discourse, he says. "Any time there is a report, it is shut down. I know many people are discussing the Goldstone Report. I don't want to get into Goldstone and what he represents, necessarily -- there are other reports, from B'Tselem for instance, which talk about war crimes committed against Palestinians and war crimes committed by Palestinians. We have to go to our religious texts again. The Qur'an says, 'O you Muslims, stand up for justice, even if it is against yourself or your parents or your communities.'"

"Understand: every war bombs everything into rubble, and the only thing that is left is despair, from which rise more extremist groups which are to the right of the extremist groups the war intended to destroy in the first place. Wars do not destroy extremism; they exacerbate it and they radicalize the region."

I want to ask about two other issues. Among the final status issue, these two have a particular human and moral issue which is beyond the others [right of return and Jerusalem]. Can you speak briefly about how these issues are viewed in your community and what that may suggest in terms of possibilities?

Maureen Shea begins: when we hear from indigenous Christians, we hear their stories about the Nakba and the pain of having lost their homes and property and community. It's a difficult story. "There are two levels on that. One is, I think there's recognition, though often unspoken, that ultimately when there is an agreement, there will be some kind of compensation and that refugees will not all be able to go back to their original homes and places. But people don't want to say that."

Regarding Jerusalem, her sense as a Christian is that people who are not Christian often don't understand the significance of Jerusalem to Christians. "They think if you have Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, you have the story." But Jerusalem is vitally important to Christians. "My hope and prayer is that Danny Seidman who does the tours for America for Peace Now is right when he says, on Friday now you can go into the Old City and see members of all three traditions going about their religious traditions safely, without attacking one another." But the growth of settlements in the Holy City is, she says, a "complication." It's a mistake, she says, to see the struggle for Jerusalem only in terms of Jews and Muslims.

Mark Pelavin adds, "there are two places in the Jewish community and other communities as well where emotions run most highly and people are most passionate... there are lots of things we can talk about, line drawing and settlement maps, that have underlying emotion to them but aren't as emotionally fraught/charged as the question of Jerusalem and of refugees." We need to be careful to be precise in our language, proceed gingerly, make small steps, find what we can agree on, and "hope that as the atmosphere begins to change we see a glimpse of what might be." Until that happens, it's difficult to have these conversations in the rational way we need to have them.

Re: Gaza, "I don't disagree with what Salam said. I'm mindful here that I represent the largest synagogue movement in the Jewish community," he says, and in the run-up to the Gaza war he was struck by the silence of his friends in the pro-peace community. "Silence is maybe too strong a word, but -- lack of action." We tried to draw attention to what was happening in Sderot, what life was like every day for those citizens, and that message perhaps hasn't penetrated in the broader Jewish community. "What life is like on the ground for the families who never new when the next rocket was coming -- that didn't get raised very much in our conversation," he says. "There's room for much ore of that.

Maureen talked about being accused of "selling out," Pelavin notes. "One thing that's incredibly clear to me every day is that we make a big mistake if we think we can generalize about any of these communities. Our own communities are infinitely diverse, contain an infinite number of points of view, and the idea of being able to say that mainline Christians think this, or evangelicals think that, or American Muslims think this, is just this side of absurd! Part of the challenge for us is getting to know one another's comunities well enough to get to know the diversity that exists inside all of them.

(This was a major theme at the retreat for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders which I attended in August, so I'm delighted to hear Mark Pelavin articulating it.)

Our moderator adds, "In National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East, we were not able to reach an agreement on what to say about the situation in Gaza. We were silent in the lead-up to the Gaza War. If President Obama had been in charge, we would have had more of a sense of calling on him to send Secretary of State Clinton out there when the cease-fire was falling apart! ...But we didn't do it. I'm picking up on what you said: our lacklustre approach, partly because as Christians and Muslims we thought, 'ah, rockets, they aren't doing nothing.' But they were doing something. I fault our coalition [for being silent]. Don't take the quiet times, the times that don't seem as if there's huge violence going on, as times when you don't need to address something."

Rabbi Liebling brings together a series of questions which have arisen on index cards, about how we can begin working together. Maureen suggests that we look at what's already happening in our communities and build on that. "If you don't have existing relationships with people, this is the hardest place to start, so start with the people you've already worked with" -- even on the Thanksgiving dinner-type programs, which we may laugh at, but it's a place to begin. "We have to deal with our own groups and relationships to say, 'look at these exciting things that are happening!'"

Mark Pelavin adds, "It's like any other kind of relationship-building. You don't begin with the most difficult issue." These are hard topics, he says; it's much easier, he notes, to talk about them with a colleague of many years than with someone you've just met. "Begin with the idea of discussing, not necessarily with the idea of agreeing. Be prepared to sit with people with whom you disagree, and have a conversation." Maybe the first program is 2 or 3 people having coffee together, he says. Then consider some educational work. Then visit in people's homes, build personal relationship. Not until you've done all of that can you tackle these tough subjects. "If you do that, you'll find in almost every Jewish community people who are interested in this conversation."

Salam Al-Marayati agrees. "However -- no matter how slow or how fast you go, you will be attacked," he adds. "It doesn't matter; I could say the sky is blue and I'll be attacked for not sympathizing with some extremist somewhere." He came together with a group of rabbis during the Gaza crisis to condemn rocket fire on Sderot and call for immediate cease-fire. "Yet we were called the extremists," he said, "and those who were rallying for war were somehow the 'moderates.'" Our public discourse on the issue has this problem. People have accused his family of supporting Saddam Hussein although his family was persecuted under Saddam. Jews were also attacked for being part of this conversation. "But continue working, and God will find a path for the peacemakers," he says, to a round of applause.

Greg Khalil adds, "You don't have to necessarily focus on agreement. You don't even have to focus on getting a public statement on something." There was a deafening silence on Gaza, he says, including on the rockets going into Sderot which terrorized an entire city and on the closure happening in the Gaza strip. "These are the kinds of issues that we're not going to find agreement on," he says. Until a few months ago, sanitary napkins, diapers, most milk products couldn't get into the Gaza Strip. "Conditions are extreme there, and they have been extreme there -- and that doesn't justify anything, not the rockets, not the attacks on Sderot! But this shows that these are conversations we need to have." His community needs to understand that people are suffering in Sderot; Jews need to understand that people are suffering in Gaza. "Those connections are how you build a platform for true cooperation." Focus on relationships and partnerships that can be formed." The room breaks into spontaneous applause again.

A question directed at Salam: what do Muslim groups do to condemn anti-semitic statements made by other Muslim groups or Arab states? What do moderate Muslim groups do to condemn those who spout violent theology based on Islam? What are the Muslim groups in the US who actively promote a two-state solution?

"I think part of the problem is, we as Muslim-Americans are not heard," says Al-Marayati, "and do not have the ability to have our press conferences on these issues aired on Fox news." If one person decides to be a fan of bin Laden or Ahmedinejad, "then that person gets on Fox news," he says. But moderate Muslims have been here all along! "To this day, there's the issue of 'you haven't condemned 9/11 enough. What is enough? We condemned 9/11, we condemn anti-Semitism -- for example, the Iranian president issued his tirade about wiping Israel off the face of the earth, and we condemned him for making that statement. And other Muslim organizations did the same. Anti-semitism is a sin. Within Islam, Jews are people of the Book; I must respect their rights and give them their due share as people who were given a divine message. They have a special status within Islam." "The prophet also said, in the Medina constitution -- this is in writing! -- 'Jews are an 'ummah alongside the believers.' Jews are a community alongside the believers. That is from where we get our understanding and our theology. Anyone who uses violence against civilians, even promoting war, is somebody that we condemn." Do Muslim states deviate from all of these? Indeed. Which is why the silent majority needs a greater voice.

As far as a two-state solution, any American organization working on policy supports a twostate solution. MPAC has written two papers already on the two-state solution, both Israel and Palestine having the right to coexist. It's true that many Palestinians are now talking about the one-state solution -- "but we have to understand where that perspective is coming from," the sense that people are giving up and no longer believe that Israel is remotely serious about negtiations or about creating change.

How can we ever create peace when religion teaches us otherwise? All three of our traditions have texts which support the use of war. How do we respond to the contradictory passes in Qur'an, Torah and Bible about using violence to promote your faith?

Ron Young, self-identifying as Lutheran, tells us that he gave a lecture at Chautauqua on "religion: source of violence or source of peace?" Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars were all there for several days dealing with this subject. "The one thing they didn't deal with is how the sources of that corruption of our traditions are in the text themselves." The first thing we do in addressing that is "acknowledge that there are things in our text that must cause us to revolt, to throw up, to say 'my God! that's not the message!'" And then we must return to our texts and find counter-texts which don't promote that sense of superiority vis-a-vis the Other.

Salam Al-Marayati adds, "We can talk about theology; God, in my understanding of the Qur'an, doesn't promise Muslims anything unless they believe in Him and do righteously." There are those who will argue that in the Qur'an, when it says good things of Jews and Christians, 'Oh, that was the Jews and Christians in former times.' This is the fundamentalist view." But, he says, the world is divided not into Jews and Christians and Muslims, but into stupid people and intelligent people! (The implication being, the triumphalists are the stupid ones.)

A question many of us have faced in doing this work: how do we talk to people, approach people, whose entire view is emotionally overwhelmed by their identification with the Holocaust or with Naqba? When one's views are rooted in deep emotional pain, whether it's the pain of losing one's land or losing one's family -- for many people, the positions they take on this are really not rooted in logic or even in faith but in fear and in pain. How do we address, in dialogue the fear and the pain that are the root of some of the problem?

"There's a rabbinical teaching: the reason God gave us two ears and one mouth is that we need to listen two times as much as we talk," says Mark Pelavin. His first response is, "listen, listen, listen."

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling adds, "Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors, so this is something I've thought about for a long time. The first thing, in my experience, is for each of us to look at our own pain." Once we experience our own pain, we have the choice to privatize it and play victim on some level, circle the wagons, etc; and we have the choice to universalize it, "to understand that every human being and every people feels pain." Understanding that pain can be a way to connect with other people; we can use that pain as a source of compassion and understanding.

Maureen Shea adds that she's had two experiences listening to people tell stories of pain and trauma -- people associated with the Bereaved Parents' Circle Family Forum -- and we should ask them how they work through this.

"Are we here to serve God or to have God serve us? If we are here to serve God, then forgiving each other is incumbent on all of us," says Salam Al-Marayati. "To move forward, progressive thinking -- it's looking to the future, not to the past. To submit to God means to let go of all of this suffering: to understand it, deal with it, and let go so we can serve God the best way possible.

Final question: what works to bring about interfaith dialogue, to bring the peace process forward in an interfaith way?

Salam Al-Marayati says: Develop a theology of peacemaking; see our tradition as instrument of peacemaking. At the local level: creating these relationships. And think of our children. That's what I'm working for. (Very pregnant Rachel adds: AMEN!) We want them to have peace in the Middle East. We want to have a future that builds on our common interest and traditions to create a second Golden Age of Muslim/Jewish relationship in America.

Mark Pelavin adds the importance of consistency of engagement. "All of us at this table criticized the past administration because they flitted in and out," he says. But consistent engagement is critical. Even though we won't always agree, the fact that we sit and talk with one another and build relationships is incredibly important! "You can't underestimate the importance of relationship."

(And here I stopped taking notes, in order to get this post up before the next session. Deep thanks to everyone who was a part of this panel!