For real understanding to occur between cultures, people must see one another as people and not just as "representatives of a national collective," a proponent of interreligious dialogue noted at a recent event in Bryn Mawr.
"There is more moderation in Islam than you'd like to believe," especially if you only read your local newspaper, said Rabbi Ron Kronish, who went on to stress the importance of "de-demonizing the other."
Kronish was in Philadelphia last week for a forum on interreligious dialogue. He was joined at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church by Rev. Samuel S. Fanous and Issa Jaber for the nearly two-hour symposium. All three panelists are part of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, a group that seeks to bring peace through interreligious reconciliation and education.
The stop in Philadelphia, said Kronish, was part of a "whistle-stop tour." The trio was scheduled to appear at events in Washington, D.C., and North Carolina, among other places, before returning to Israel.
Approximately 150 people attended the event, which was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and a number of local churches and synagogues.
The program began with each panelist individually addressing the crowd.
Respect for Differences
"In a genuine dialogue, we don't have to agree, but we do have to respect each other's differences," Kronish said at the start of his remarks.
Interreligious dialogue in Israel, he said, was, for many years, largely the same as in the West — confined to Jews and Christians, and "didn't deal with real life." He went on to say that the past 10 years has seen a shift in the focus of such dialogues to center on practical issues and life on the ground.
Fanous emphasized that peace cannot come without compassion, love and mercy, and encouraged personal relationships with others in order to overcome stereotypical thinking.
"We build the future by being together," he said, "not by waiting" for things to happen and problems to solve themselves.
"There is nothing wrong with Islam," Issa Jaber said at the start of his own remarks, "but there is something wrong with some Muslims."
Jaber, whose first name is Arabic for "Jesus," emphasized the oft-repeated line that Islam is a religion of peace that has been perverted by a relative few extremists, and that most Muslims are, at heart, moderates.
"We believe a peaceful resolution between Arabs and Jews is possible," he emphasized, "but the question is how and when."
Kronish and Jaber both used the Oslo accords as an example. Jaber said that after Oslo, at least the Jews recognized the Palestinians; however, the idea that the Palestinians would recognize Israel wasn't so successful.
"After Oslo, we were very happy to think about a new future in the Middle East," he said. "Unfortunately, all those very nice dreams fell down and nothing was practiced on the ground."
The panelists also addressed questions from the crowd, including a request for advice on how the United States should act as an intermediary between the Israelis and Palestinians.
"Just creating a political framework for a two-state solution won't solve everything," said Kronish. "I would urge the U.S. government to be an honest broker, and be as fair-minded as possible and push both sides. We need extra urging — and economic incentives sometimes help."
Jaber also discussed the unusual position of Arab Israelis, saying those with a foot in both cultures had a responsibility "to serve as a bridge between the two, if the opportunity is given."
While much of the panel's (and, in turn, the ICCI's) efforts are focused on long-term goals of education and fostering understanding, Kronish said that there was a limited amount that could be done in the short term towards meeting those goals.
"We can't do much now in Gaza and the West Bank until it calms down," he said. "But within Israel, we can do a lot.
"Things are changed on the ground through education," he added, "and not through the waving of political wands."