"There are central concepts in all the three Abrahamic religions that can really help us bring peace and understanding and reconciliation in our society," said Rabbi Ronen Lubitch, an Orthodox spiritual leader of Nir Etzion, a kibbutz in the Carmel Mountains of Israel. "I believe that it is in the religious setting that one can find seeds to promote peace."
Lubitch shared his thoughts on bridging the gaps between different religions at a panel discussion called "Abrahamic Voices of Peace" and sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. The Dec. 5 event was held at the Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia.
He was joined by Sheikh Mithkal Natour and Rev. Samuel S. Fanous.
Natour, an expert on Islamic law, stressed that people of all religions must look to peaceful passages in their religious texts.
"The problem, in the Middle East especially, is the misuse of the book," said Natour, referring to the Old and New Testaments and the Koran.
"If we look in [each of these] books, we can find shining verses that demand us to live with the other although they are not similar to us," he continued. "On the other hand, we find other verses against the other. Our task is to look for the shining aspects, the similar aspects between all [people] and to bring them together."
Fanous, an Anglican priest of Arabic decent, stressed that although there is violence in the Middle East, there are many people in the region who seek peace.
"You hear news that they are fighting, but once you are there you learn that you still have people who care for each other," said Fanous, who serves as rector of the Emmanuel Anglican Church of Ramle and who worked previously at a church in Ramallah. "We need more of this practicality."
Lubitch told the audience about the four years he spent in Cape Town, South Africa, during the country's transformation from apartheid into what he called a peaceful state.
"I had the opportunity to see very closely how people can change, and how a society can go through a process that people will think will never happen, [but] simply happened almost naturally," said the rabbi, who hopes that Israeli society could also one day live in peace.
Fanous said that the conversion to a peaceful society must be natural.
To illustrate his point, he contrasted attempts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with mechanical things that yield an automatic response.
"There is a whole lot of work to do, and if you don't do it, an automatic button is not going to do it [for you]," Fanous offered as a caution.
After the initial presentations, an audience member asked the panel about news reports indicating that Arab students are learning hatred of Jews while attending school.
Natour, who is a member of Jerusalem's Department of Education for Arabic schools, answered that it is not chiefly the Arabic institutions that breed hostility.
"I do not deny that hatred may be made in the classroom, but not only in the West Bank, not only in the Arab schools, also in the Jewish schools," he said.
He went on to assert that it is the parents' job to educate their children and not create feelings of animosity in the household.
"A child is living in his family," he said. "The supervisor of a child is his parents first of all."
According to Natour, peace can be reached when people finally get past their prejudices and learn about one another.
"We have no other choice," he said, "but to live together and to understand each other."